Category Archives: GeoKitchen Posts

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Shell Games


shell game

I knew I’d seen this exact shape before (the dark one on the left) – the distinct, lopsided bowl, the pronounced “beak” and the pastry-like layers of shell growth. I was shucking my way through a sack of Hog Island oysters, freshly harvested from Tomales Bay in Northern California, and hustling to get an order of 12 off the raw bar and out to some hungry customers. I set the provocative little bivalve aside on the ice, and forgot about it until clean up later that evening. Then the connection came clearly – this odd-shaped oyster looked just like one I had seen last summer (the grey one on the right), an oyster from a very different time and place…. a fossil from an outcropping of Mancos Shale in central Utah (photo below), preserved in stone from the mid-Cretaceous – around 100 million years ago!  Utah shell creek

The similarities between the two shells are stunning. What is even more stunning is the obvious question underlying the “sisters from a different mister” – why? Why are these shells so similar, given all that has changed on planet Earth in 100 million years? How many animals living today look unchanged from their ancestors of the Cretaceous? Not many. So what is it about oysters, and the design of oysters, that makes this possible? The answer may lie in the nature of the intertidal habitat that oysters call (and many other marine invertebrates) call home.

to be continued……

New Year’s Posole

bowl o posole

Each year we have a holiday tradition (adopted from Gwen’s Santa Fe family heritage) of preparing posole rojo – the classic Mexican (and New Mexican) stew of “nixtamalized” corn cooked in bone broth with chili and other spices. With the exception of the pork (brought by the Spanish), this is a dish that might have been enjoyed all the way back to Mayan (and pre-Incan in the Andes) times. The word “nixtamalizado” (Spanish) or “nixtamalized” is derived from the Aztec language and refers to soaking corn in an alkali solution to remove the pericarp (outer covering). In addition to aiding the speed of cooking, this process also has the happy effect of dramatically increasing the availability of niacin and boosting corn flavor. This is also the process for making masa for tortillas and tamales (nixTAMALi).

Typically I buy the posole corn “prepared” – meaning that it has been nixtamalized somewhere else and then re-dried for sale. Gwen’s grandparents bought theirs from Casados Farms – a northern New Mexico institution and home of the distinct El Guique chili pepper. I can still get products from Casados Farms (a phone call to the Portrero Trading Post) but this year I wanted to try the nixtalization process from scratch. So I ordered up a 20# bag of organic yellow corn from Great River Organic Milling in Wisconsin. (A bit out of my foodshed, but organic field corn is surprisingly rare in the pinot-saturated Russian River Valley…). You can get the basic idea about the nixtamal process from a CIA instructional vid here. The corn turns a vibrant golden color in the calcium hydroxide (I used “mrs.wages” pickling lime) – which looks very cool.

Once the corn was cooling in its alkali soup (I soaked mine all night) I turned to the pork stock. Nearly all posole recipes seem to utilize trotters (pigs feet). Fortunately we have a great butcher shop – Sonoma County Meat Co. – that sells locallypigs feet raised, pastured pork. (The more I learn about CAFO-based meat production the more I want to know where my meats actually come from.) Trotters are cheap and create a stock that is rich and full of body. I also added some pork shoulder for shredding into the finished posole. Some folks add LOTS of pork, but I like to let the corn be the star. After simmering my freshly made posole in the strained stock I added lots of garlic, onion, Mexican oregano (a member of the verbena family), the shredded pork and of course – red chili. There are many ways of getting the chili into to stew but I had some incredible heirloom red chili from Chimayo, New Mexico, so that’s what I used. Posole takes plenty of salt – and I found that my homemade posole corn had a touch of sweetness. One of the best parts about posole is the fresh garnishes – cabbage, radish, cilantro, a squeeze of fresh lime – all are great. Plus, there should be a dish of good ground red chili to sprinkle in for extra chili flavor and kick. Buen Provecho!

jars of posole


Bringing Home the Herring

whole herringWhen we arrived at the Pier near Richmond Point the only suggestion of herring were the hopeful women and men fishers lined up along the railing. The gulls and cormorants were bobbing in the slow ebb and flow of a mid-tide, giving no indication of the wild feeding that was reported in the area on the day before. Not much was happening.

There was a time when winter herring fishing in the San Francisco Bay was an annual bonanza – but after some serious overfishing for the export market (herring roe are a prized food in Japan) the stocks were pretty depleted. The commercial fishery was closed for a time and last year the herring were back in abundance. Each winter the herring come in waves from the open Pacific, pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, and seek out shallow eel grass beds to spread their milt and eggs. Some days are thick (like yesterday) and some are not (like today). Still, as we unloaded our gear (cast nets and fishing rods) we could tell that folks of the pier were catching a few. And a few would probably be enough for a boy and his dad looking to capture a bit of the bounty. Cast nets are the traditional harvest tool of choice for the thick days but today was going to be about a slower method: five small, hooked psuedo-bugs daisy-chained together. Called a sabiki rig (a Japanese invention), these ganged hooks are mostly used to catch bait. Herring might be bait or dinner, depending on your perspective and your willingness to try out different parts of the food chain. After an hour we had 30 or 40 in the cooler and Sage was getting cold from the wind. We picked up and we called it a morning.

In truth though, fishing is never just about the catching. Much of the work still lies ahead – cleaning and preparing the fish for the next steps in the dance. In the case of herring (and other oily fish like salmon and sardines) this next step must happen almost immediately. All that delicious and nutritious oil starts to go bad in matter of hours – certaicleaned herring 2nly within a day or so. And gutting and filleting small fish is pretty laborious. Still, like so many things I whine about, once you get into a rhythm it goes along smoothly. Now longer in the the tooth myself, I find a certain meditation in the repetitious work of the kitchen – the chopping, slicing, and cleaning. Somehow knowing that the repetition leads to sustenance – a daily repeating need for self and family – makes it quietly heroic as well. With herring there is scaling, gutting, and filleting (for the pickles). I had chosen two recipes – one for smoked “kippered” herring and another for pickled herring. I also made a quick lunch following Hank Shaw’s rendition of Scottish-style fried herring – brushed with mustard, coated in oats and fried till crisp. I didn’t even get a picture!

I have eaten a lot of fish – in all shapes and sizes and in many parts of the planet. And I like a can of good sardines or kippers as much as anyone – fishy though they may be. But it must be stated clearly that even the oiliest little fish, if handled carefully and processed quickly, can be deliciously delicate in flavor. And these herring have been just that – delicate and delicious. I love them as pickles with a bit of creme fraiche and chopped dill on dark rye. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, bit this must be pretty close to the real deal.

herring and citrus

Welcome to the Geographer’s Kitchen!

Every meal has a backstory. The ingredients were grown/produced by someone, somewhere. They may have been processed by others, elsewhere. The styles of preparation also have a place of origin – Italian, Chinese, South Asian, etc. And each food we eat also has a wild backstory – a place where wild plant or animal ancestors were selected and tamed for the sustenance and enjoyment of human communities living nearby. Despite the seeming instant availability of just about everything, we lack context – a sense of place – for our meals.

The Geographer’s Kitchen is a place to explore the rich intersections of food, people and landscape.  A place to put the meal on the map and celebrate the incredible backstories that link our everyday eating to the farthest reaches of the planet – often in ways we can scarcely imagine. Perhaps by understanding these linkages better we may also learn to eat in ways that support and sustain our wealth of food diversity – a wealth we have inherited from countless generations of farmers and food producers.

Hot, Hot Roti at the Holidays

Gary's Worldview

Sage's roti doughThere is a wonderful children’s story called “Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji” (F. Zia, 2011) about a young boy that makes fresh roti for his grandfather – roti that bestows superhero powers!  Gwen and Sage discovered the book last year and we have had a blast crafting flatbread ever since. Today after school we decided to make a batch to go with dinner. We have evolved our house recipe a bit – straying from the traditional dough of semolina flour and water. Here is the basic outline:

  • 1 cup of semolina flour (or whole wheat)
  • 1/2 cup of unbleached white flour
  • 1/2 cup of masa harina (tortilla flour)
  • 1 tsp. salt

The touch of masa adds a rich corn flavor that I really love. Mix the dry ingredients with enough warm water to make a medium-soft dough. Knead until smooth, roll into a ball, and let rest in…

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Beauty and the Beast: A tale of two Mondays

Gary's Worldview

Vermillion rockcodLast Monday Reuben and I slipped out to Stillwater Cove for an afternoon of kayak fishing. The previous week had been blown out with large swells and high winds, but this day was lovely. As we paddled through the kelp beds and out to the open sea I was struck by how clear the water was – it seemed like I could see farther down the stipes than ever before. Looking from a kayak into a kelp forest can be pretty hypnotic – you are so close to the skin of the water. The baseball-sized pnuematocysts look like shrunken heads, with their hair-blades swaying and bobbing in the swell.

I wanted to find a reef I remembered from last year, but I forgot the battery for my sonar and I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I was testing depths with a jig and staying close into the kelp –…

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Farmer Sage meets (and eats) Hog Island Oysters

Gary's Worldview

Last week Sage and I loaded up for a day on the coast – tidepooling, whale watching, and an exploratory visit to Tomales Bay and the Hog Island Oyster Farm. Sage is 5 and generally adores fresh fish and seafood of all kinds – grilled Baja dorado, my cider-cured and applewood smoked trout, and Bodega Bay crab are all favorites. He also eats ikura, shrimp and tako nigiri like a champ. But I wasn’t sure how oysters would go over, and I knew it would be risky to drive all the way from Bodega Bay (the whales) to Marshall (the oyster farm). But lately I have been fixating on local seafood myself, and I discovered that the Hog Island Oyster Farm was not only visitor friendly but also produces what might be the finest oysters in the Bay Area. So I took my chances and we made the drive.


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Not your average grocery…

Gary's Worldview

A 12 hour layover is a fine thing if that layover happens to be in Hong Kong. It is one of the few cities in the world where you can actually escape the terminal for no cost and no paperwork. And the excellent train system takes you directly to the heart of downtown in 25 minutes! Not only do you get to muse at what must be one of the most internationally eclectic cities in the world, you also get eat dim sum – and you know how I feel about dim sum (see my post from February). But on this day, as I walked off my hefty lunch in the sanctuary of an underground mall (a typhoon brewing and spewing rain outside), I encountered the most amazing grocery store I have ever seen. Ever. Why? Let us consider the meat counter.

The meat counter at C!tySuper looks, at first…

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Yum Cha Heaven

Gary's Worldview

After 15 hours of trans Pacific hang time we needed to walk and we wanted to eat. Nathaniel Wilder and I were en route to Nepal but faced with an epic layover in Hong Hong. So we stashed our gear and hopped a ferry to Hong Kong’s Central Terminal– gateway to Victoria Peak and some the best dim sum eateries in the known universe. From the terminal we made our way cross town to the venerable City Hall Maxim’s and queued up for a table. Yum Cha is Cantonese for drinking tea but implies much more. Yum Cha means to enjoy tea, and usually to enjoy sweet and savory snacks — dim sum — as well. We ordered a pot of good oolong tea and began watching for our first round of goodies. You don’t usually order dim sum from a menu, you make selections (or point emphatically in our…

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