photo by Dan Bruell

The on-again, off-again, on-again tamale workshop was a huge hit! About 20 people packed into the back of Pilar’s Cafe while owner Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers and her mom walked us through making tamales from scratch.

The biggest surprise to me was that it is the masa (corn flour dough) that is the real focus of a good tamale – not the filling. I knew Sylvia and her crew make over a dozen flavors of tamales – from chicken and pork to black bean and even “Greek” tamales with fresh local greens, feta cheese, and kalamata olives – but I didn’t know that they make a different masa to go with the different types of fillings. Chicken tamales have masa made with chicken stock, pork tamales get pork stock, etc. The black bean tamales are even made with black bean “stock” – the saucy broth left after cooking the black beans for the casamiento (beans and rice). All the stocks are homemade from real ingredients – no bouillon here!

Sylvia makes a very “loose” masa. It looks like cake batter when you first mix it up, and it has to stand for at least one night in the fridge before you can scoop it and roll it into tamales. If you’ve ever bitten into a tamale and found it to be too dry, it’s because the masa was not mixed with enough stock and is simply dry and stiff. After standing for several hours, the masa should take on the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes. Masa will keep a long time in the fridge – a couple weeks at home, though Sylvia uses hers in under a week at the store.

Photo by Dan Bruell

Assembling the tamales is a little messy, but not too hard. You need a 12×10″ square of aluminum foil and a 6×9″ sheet of parchment paper. You can also use a cleaned square of banana leaf on top of the foil, if you like, though washing the leaves takes several changes of water and is very labor-intensive. Sylvia has stopped using them in her tamales because she’s concerned about the pesticides sprayed on the leaves. Many of her ingredients are organic, or at least hormone- and antibiotic-free, so she doesn’t want to ruin the health benefits by wrapping them in chemical-soaked leaves.

Don’t overfill the tamales; an egg-sized ball of masa, spread out with a dimple in the middle, is about right. Add some salsa and whatever fillings you like, then roll it up. This video shows the tamale-rolling process far better than I could explain.

After we made our tamales, we sampled some that had been cooked already, along with cortido (pickled cabbage salad) and horchata (an amazing sweet beverage with cinnamon and morro spices, reminiscent of chai but totally dairy-free). Snack time also gave us time to talk – we learned how horchata is made (and wow, is it totally worth $4/cup!) and about Sylvia’s plans to add an espresso bar to the cafe, with horchata lattes and spicy mochas. Yum! Sign me up.

Sylvia will probably be teaching more classes in the near future. She’ll announce them in her newsletter (sign up by calling the store at 734-929-4161) and when I learn of them, I’ll alert you to them here, too.

Sunday, Jan. 10th, 2pm, at Pilar’s Cafe, 2261 W. Liberty, Ann Arbor (map).

RSVP at by noon on Saturday!

The tamale-making workshop has been postponed. I was out on family business for essentially all of December and couldn’t nail down details before our presenter left for the holidays.

I’ll try to reschedule, but I’m not sure when that might happen.

Welcome to 2010, everyone! I’m drawing up the schedule for the Ann Arbor group’s year of workshops, and would like your input. Would you take five minutes to answer our survey about topics for this year? Thanks!


cabbageLast Sunday, we learned how easy it is to make homemade sauerkraut. I forgot my camera (again…) but the inimitable Ilex over at Homesteading in a Condo recently posted a photo essay of how she makes kraut. I refer you to her excellent guide to making sauerkraut, and make a few notes here about how we varied the process slightly.

Holly has beautiful, vintage sauerkraut crocks, and she makes several gallons at a time. If you are not blessed with such crocks, or want to make smaller batches, all is not lost! Canning jars make excellent small-batch kraut containers – use either quarts or half-gallon wide-mouth jars.

You can either salt the shredded cabbage in a bowl, tossing thoroughly to mix, or layer cabbage and salt right in your crock or jar. In either case, every few inches you need to stomp the cabbage and thoroughly bruise it. This gets it to release its juice, which will combine with the salt to make the salt brine that preserves the cabbage. Shred, salt, stomp. Shred, salt, stomp. That’s about all there is to it.

When you get to the top of your container or run out of cabbage, you want to make sure the kraut is submerged under brine. In a canning jar, I get great results by tucking a whole cabbage leaf into the jar, tucking it down around the shredded cabbage, to make a “stopper.” Then I put a quart-sized freezer bag into the neck of the jar and fill the bag with brine (2T salt to 1 quart water). Make sure the bag fills every crevice and holds the cabbage under the brine, and top with a loosely-sealed plastic lid.

Some other thoughts:

  • A 3-4 pound cabbage makes about a quart of kraut.
  • Use a total of 1.5 to 2 tablespoons of salt per quart of kraut. Measure it out beforehand and sprinkle it in evenly as you go.
  • More salt preserves better; less salt tastes better. As long as you keep the cabbage submerged and the top on (but not tight), you can usually keep the kraut from getting moldy.
  • Mold or “scum” (usually kahm yeast) is not dangerous, but it doesn’t taste good. You can safely scrape it off (taking a layer of kraut with it, if the gunk isn’t free-floating) and the rest of the kraut is OK to eat.
  • You can season kraut. Try:
    • 1-2 Tbl Caraway seeds
    • 1-2 Tbl mustard seeds plus 1-2Tbl prepared horseradish, dispersed evenly throughout the kraut
    • Add red pepper flakes, shredded carrots, shredded daikon, scallions, and ginger for a kimchee-like salad (this works great with nappa cabbage, and may need some additional brine)

Also, you don’t just have to eat your kraut straight. Try these:

  • Crumble and brown sausage with a diced onion. Add shredded cabbage and kale, a diced tart apple, and cooked diced potatoes (boil them with a lot of salt!). At the last minute, stir in about a cup of kraut and just heat it through. Top with cheddar, if you’re feeling decadent.
  • Add well-drained kraut to potato pancakes.
  • Mix 1/4 c. kraut or pickle juice, 1/4 c. vinegar, 1/4 c. salad oil, and 1 Tbl prepared mustard. Mix together and use as salad or slaw dressing.

appleTurnoverWe had a small, fun group for our apple turnover class, led by J.J. Jacobson (the Culinary Curator) on October 11th. Turnovers, for the uninitiated, are a buttery, flaky crust wrapped around half a peeled, sliced apple, spiced with cinnamon. Sort of a hand-held pie, but the crust was a revelation (at least to me). Far easier to work with than pie crust – more elastic and forgiving. Beats me how this works, because the ingredients and methods look very similar to pie crust (though we used all-purpose rather than pastry flour).They tasted amazing – truly the best baked-apple-pastry thing I’ve ever had.

The recipe is after the cut!


cabbageOld-fashioned, homemade sauerkraut is nothing like the salty, sharp kind you get at the store. Instead, it’s tangy, crunchy, and full of healthy probiotics (like in yogurt). It’s also really easy to make!

Bring one head of green cabbage, the fresher the better. You’ll also need to bring a wooden spoon and about 1 gallon’s worth of containers. If you don’t have the traditional pickling crock, you can use any of the following:

  • The ceramic liner of a crockpot you don’t plan on using for a couple months and a 1-gallon freezer bag
  • A clean, food-grade plastic pail and its lid, or a freezer bag
  • Two half-gallon mason jars  and plastic lids <–these are actually my favorite kraut pickling jars
  • Four quart-sized mason jars and plastic lids (or just bring one or two and make less kraut for this first trial run)

Sunday, November 8th
Pittsfield Grange
3337 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd.
Ann Arbor, MI

Cost is $5; free for members of the Grange. RSVP here!

grange logoIf you’ve been enjoying Preserving Traditions events, you might consider joining the Grange! The Grange is full of folks who are interested in old-fashioned food and friendship…it’s part of the reason Preserving Traditions has been such a great fit.

As a member of the Grange, you’ll attend all Preserving Traditions events for free and get first chance to sign up for our most popular (and space-limited) events, like canning work days and farm visits. As a member of the Grange, you’ll have be able to participate in monthly potlucks and hear interesting presenters. There’s also a discount on the Grange’s family dances, and membership in the national Grange organization, as well, giving you a voice in local, state, and national Grange business. (And yes, there is actually a secret handshake!)

Annual membership is $40 (or $70 for the whole family), but we’re running a “special” this year: if you sign up before December, we’ll extend your membership through December 2010. You can download an application and mail it to our membership director, Joan Hellmann (info is on the application).

Sept. 27th was the first Preserving Traditions workshop in animal processing. We learned to kill, pluck, and clean chickens at Back Forty Acres farm in Chelsea.

We started with a tour of the farm. Stephanie and Larry Doll raise meat and egg chickens, goats, sheep, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and hogs. The laying hens have the run of a large enclosure (I’d guess it was over a quarter of an acre) and a hoophouse-type “coop” for  protection from the weather. The hens keep most of the grass and weeds very low, but one type of weed (not sure what kind) stands nearly 3’ tall throughout the pen. This has a sort of “forest” effect, providing shade and shelter, and a little camouflage from hawks. The pen is surrounded by an electrified net, which the Dolls say is sufficient to keep out coyotes and other predators.

The meat birds (including turkeys) are in “pasture pens” made out of PVC pipe, wire fencing, and a corrugated roof over part of the pen. These pens get moved to fresh grass daily, so the birds have plenty of greenery and bugs to supplement their chicken feed.

Some of the turkeys are Bourbon Red and Slate Gray heritage breeds, and they were a hoot! Every once in a while, they would all gobble in unison. That made the people laugh, and the laughter made the turkeys gobble again.

After the tour, we returned to the barn for  an overview of the chicken cleaning process, and then it was time to do the deed. Each person placed her or his chicken upside down in a cone, cut the jugular veins with a knife, and waited for the chicken to bleed out. It took less than a minute for the chickens to close their eyes and go still, though they would often twitch some in the next few minutes.

Then we dunked the birds in hot water, plucked them, and removed the head, feet, and oil gland. Gutting was next, and cleaning any of the giblets we wanted to keep, and finally simmering and “peeling” the chicken feet in order to clean them for soup-making. There are lots of very good descriptions of this process on the web, so I won’t go into that detail here.

The mood at the event was respectful, but not at all morbid. All of us were there because we find something intriguing about the life-to-death-to-dinner process. Most of us have seen video of factory farms and industrial slaughter operations, and the opinion was unanimous that this life and death are far more humane than anything industrial agriculture has to offer. And while some may argue that taking any life for food is unacceptable, it was pretty clear to us that if one were to choose to eat meat, it would be ideal if it could all be produced this way.  In fact, several folks at the workshop saw the class as a step toward raising their own small livestock. Others said that now that they’ve had the experience, they’re happy to let small farmers like the Dolls raise their meat animals and have them processed.

I really believe that as oil becomes more scarce, our industrial agriculture system is going to fail. We won’t be able to ship animals long distances to huge slaughter/processing facilities, then ship the refrigerated meat halfway across the country to be sold for 99 cents a pound. If we continue to eat meat at all, it will be raised on small farms near where we live.

If you are financially able, I strongly suggest you start supporting local farmers for as much of your food as possible. Doing so will ensure that they will be in business when we really need them. Here are some resources to help you find local food in the SE Michigan area:

Apple tastingSept. 26th was Apple Day at the Grange.* This is an annual event that features all things apple. Inside, we had an apple-themed bake sale. Apple-rhubarb pie, a variety of apple cakes, apple baklava, and any number of cakes and cookies with applesauce in them. There was also an apple tasting – 15 or so varieties of apples, both fresh and dried crispy, many of which I’d never heard of before. And finally, some craft activities and displays (including one on food preservation methods that I set up).

*We’re talking the real Grange here, the Pittsfield Union Grange, not the new restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor.

Making apple sauce and butterOutside was where the real action was happening: a demo of making apple sauce and apple butter, and the make-your-own-cider activity. The apple sauce was made in batches throughout the day and doled out in paper cups to anyone who wanted them. We probably sauced 50 pounds of apples for sampling. Follow the cut for a visual tour of how to make your own apple cider! (more…)