Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Biochar Christmas

"It may have been our ancient taste for charcoal that coded a segment of our taste receptors to favor foods cooked over glowing embers."

As more and more research is devoted to biochar we confirm again and again that it is both miraculous as a climate-change arresting store of organic carbon and as a nutrient densifier in organic and biodynamic gardening. Climate-wise, it has the potential to take us back to something more hospitable than what is now in store for us. It also has the potential to multiply our stores of nutrient dense foods. And lately we've learned something else — the power of biochar as a nonalcoholic digestif.

The use of charcoal in cooking extends back into prehistory — beyond the horizon of our earliest known civilizations — but paleoclimatology tells us that when organized societies scaled up their charcoal production — making lime for the monumental architecture of the Aztec Triple Alliance, for instance — they all too often wreaked havoc on both forest and sky to such an extent that it led to their own precipitous decline and outmigration.

Frances D. Burton, in Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution, dates hominid use of fire to 1.6 to 2 million years before present, and charcoal cooking to the beginning of that period.

We don't know when the discovery of the gastric benefits of charcoal first arrived, but it may have come from the observation of the habits of animals, such as Red colobus monkeys in Africa, who improve their diet by seeking out char from the forest floor after wildfires, enabling them to relieve the indigestion caused by toxins in some leafy greens.

Other monkeys experience bouts of diarrhea brought on by parasites and viruses. The bonnet macaques of Southern India have taken to eating dirt from termite mounds. Why eat dirt from termite mounds? The dirt contains kaolin minerals, the same ingredient found in over the counter anti-diarrheics such as Kaopectate. Rhesus macaques also partake in geophagy, the eating of dirt, for the same reasons. Clay also contains kaolin, and the rhesus macaques take extra care to only ingest clay-rich soils.
Nature: Clever Monkeys (PBS 2011)

Mother monkeys teach their young to do this, as indeed our own ancestors may have taught their young, even before we had speech and flint tools.

Of course not all charcoal is biochar and not all biochar is the same. Bone black is the carbonaceous residue obtained from the dry distillation of bones. It contains 80 percent calcium and magnesium phosphates and other inorganic material; the slow-pyrolysis resistant minerals originally present in the animal bone tissue. Charred animal manure will be high in nitrogen and potassium. Activated charcoal — created by steam treatment of charcoal to enhance the absorptive capacity of the micropores — is what most ambulances, ERs and rural clinics use to treat poisonings.

It may have been our ancient taste for charcoal that coded a segment of our taste receptors to favor foods cooked over glowing embers. Consider the popularity of the Hawaiian luau, Indian tandoor, Brazilian rodizio, Colombian lomo al trapo, Argentinian parallada, Japanese yakitori, and Indonesian satay. In Thailand and Korea, they use a small tabletop charcoal hibachi for thinly sliced meat and vegetables. While you cook, the meat and juices drip down into the second chamber, making the meat low in fat and giving you a rich broth to use as a soup or a savory sauce. Both meat and broth contain traces of biochar.

Banquet scene: Ur 2600 BCE

We have previously written in this space about the applications of biochar in animal husbandry, from improving the fermentation of silage and sweetening the smell of a barn to reducing the need for antibiotics by naturally aiding the ability of cattle to cleanse their intestinal tracts of pathogens. It should come as no surprise that biochar improves human digestion in exactly the same way, by partnering with our own, unique, beneficial, essential gastrointestinal microbiome to stimulate phage immunogenicity, fight off infection antigens and reverse toxin-loading. Improving the gastrointestinal flora diversity doesn't just help us fight disease; it aids immunomodulatory activity of phages such as phagocytosis and the respiratory burst of phagocytic cells, the production of cytokines, and the generation of antibodies on standby.

This Christmas and Chanukah we would like to offer a few recipes as a gift to those wee beasties in our gut lining that have been silently (and sometimes not so silently) helping us all year long.

Our holiday dinner will not follow any of the traditions we ourselves grew up with on snowy mornings in Wilton, Connecticut. There will be no stuffed turkey, cranberry jelly, buiscuits or mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, although for those who can source free-range, antibiotic-free turkeys from a local farmer and have that desire, please go ahead.

Nor will we follow our usual tradition at The Farm of a hickory smoked seitan roast, recorded in our mother's now-classic Cooking with Gluten and Seitan (1993).

After co-teaching permaculture courses with Nicole Foss and at her recommendation absorbing Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, and then sorting through the scientific controversy those books stirred, still swirling around neurochemistry frontiers in peer-reviewed literature, we are going to take a pass on the seitan roast, thank you very much.

Instead, we shall prepare this year a traditional feast from the Holy Land, augmented with biochar as a flavor enhancer and digestif. Today is 29th of Kislev, 5775 on the Jewish calendar. Perhaps there was a bit of biochar in the candlelit Chanukah supper 5775 years ago.

There are about 200,000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza who mark these holy days by the Western Catholic calendar on Dec. 4. In Bethlehem, families often cook more than a kilo of wheat for the occasion, well exceeding what a single household can eat. From the wheat berries they make a burbara porridge to share with both Christian and Muslim neighbors. A family burbara pot may last a full week.

We propose to prepare a wheat-free burbara, using a mix of organic yellow cornmeal, stone-cut oatmeal, hempseed meal and flaxseed meal, and, of course, biochar.

Departing just a little from the Holy Land, we plan our burbara to be accompanied by a Cuban piccadillo, in honor of the Christmas deal struck between Obama and Castro, at the urging of Pope Francis, to normalize relations. We will begin with a small appetizer of soup, then the piccadillo and burbara, with buttered brussel sprouts on the side, as our entrée. That is likely the most filling part of the meal, so what follows will be lighter, in the tradition of a hot, desert climate: side plates of fatayer, celery, carrots, pear tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, broccoli florets, sliced yellow squash, shiitake pickles and baba ghannouj, with scintillating conversation among family, neighbors and friends. Dessert will be stuffed dates — the perfect company for tea or coffee.

And while we sip our demitasse, we might just let it slip that we are doing a wonderful crowdsource funding campaign for our favorite project at The Farm this year, #The Hippies Were Right.

Preparing biochar for food:

When making food-grade biochar, we generally select for our substrate a woody-stemmed plant such as bamboo, vetiver, miscanthus, rice hulls, cacao pods, or coconut shells. We would probably not want to use poultry or other animal manures, soldier fly larvae, offal or bones, less because of any latent toxicity than because of the thought of what you are eating when it arrives at the table.

We fine-grind the char, using a coffee grinder at the last stage, reducing it to a fine, feathery powder. This will form the basis for each use in the recipes that follow.

Last year we took a wonderful fermentation intensive with Sandor Katz and later invited him to co-teach a workshop at The Farm called "Fermaculture" — Fermentation and Permaculture. Sandor introduced us to Michael Pollan's excellent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and that in turn introduced us to the fine art of mirepoix, sofrito, battuto, and other humble beginnings.

Sofrito is a Spanish mixture of onion, garlic, and tomatoes gently sautéed in a slick of olive oil. It is called soffritto in Italy, where parsley leaves and fennel, or sometimes finely diced cured meats like pancetta or prosciutto scraps can find their way into the mix. The Polish włoszczyzna — translation: "Italian stuff"—  is soffritto.

Mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) in France, suppengrün (carrot, celeriac, leek) in Germany, and most Cajun bayou cooking (onion, celery, green bell pepper), along with almost every cuisine in the world start with a common simple, balanced, vegetable base in a slow simmering stew.

"Homely in the best sense," Pollan writes, "pot dishes are about marrying lots of prosaic little things rather than elevating one big thing. In fact, it is the precise combination of these chopped-up plants that usually gives a pot dish its characteristic flavor and cultural identity." Cuban sofrito tends to taste more like the creole, while Ecuadorians begin a meal with sofritos of freshly toasted cumin, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and sweet cubanelle peppers. In Puerto Rico its known as recaíto, where culantro leaves are minced down to confetti size and joined by ajices dulces.

The secret is the slow breakdown of the long protein chains of the vegies into amino acids that activate your flavonoid sensors and confer umami. These will enliven the taste of almost anything.

Biochar Mushroom Sofrito 

Serves 4 to 6

3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 medium sweet potato, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 leeks, white parts only, split in half lengthwise, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 c cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small bunch kale, thick stems removed, leaves roughly torn
1 tsp soy sauce
pink mineral salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tsp biochar
1 to 2 Tbsp fresh juice from 1 lemon
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil

Break dried mushrooms into half-inch pieces. Add mushrooms, broth, leeks, carrot, celery, sweet potato, chickpeas, kale, and soy sauce to a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes until vegetables begin to come apart. Stir in nutritional yeast and allow to simmer 2 minutes longer.

Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in lemon juice, dash of olive oil and parsley, garnish with sprinkle of biochar and serve.

Cuban Piccadillo
Serves 4 to 6

Many people who have yet to visit Cuba assume that the birthplace of the Habanero pepper will be a center of hot cuisine. While Havana sports many trendy restaurants and night clubs, spicy foods are not something most Cubans prefer. Salt, pepper, garlic and onion are about as hot as it usually gets.

1 large waxy potato peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 lb fresh shiitake or local wild mushrooms stemmed and cut into 1-inch sections
(For authentic Cuban substitute 1 lb pulled pork)
1 small red bell pepper, cored and seeded, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 c diced canned tomatoes
4 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 4 teaspoons)
1 medium yellow or white onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1/2 c pimento stuffed olives plus 2 tablespoons brine
1/3 c raisins
1/2 c dry white wine
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp capers
1 tsp biochar
Pink mineral salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 c steamed white rice

Grill bell pepper and remove charred skins before chopping. Heat oil in large iron skillet until shimmering. Add onion, mushrooms and bell pepper and sauté, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, 1 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper, and bay leaves and cook until fragrant and tomato paste darkens in color, about 2 minutes. Add wine and reduce, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, raisins, olives, capers, brine, and potatoes. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until potatoes are tender, about 12 minutes.

Remove cover and season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with biochar. Remove and discard bay leaves. Serve with half the steamed rice garnished with biochar. Reserve the other half of the rice for the Fatayer.

Wheat Free Burbara 

Serves 20

5 cup cornmeal
3 c. oatmeal
2 c. hempseed meal
2 c. flaxseed meal
10 cinnamon sticks
¼ c. chickpea flour
¼ c. ground coconut
¼ c. candied anise and fennel seeds
1/2 c. cane syrup 
5 tsp pink mineral salt
10 tsp ground nutmeg
1 oz. Vanilla Extract
1 Tbsp food-grade biochar


Candied anise and fennel seed:
¼ c. fennel and anise seeds
1/4 c. cane syrup
½ c. water
Toast the anise and fennel seeds in a small skillet over high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. In a small saucepan cook the sugar and water over moderate heat until browned. Remove from the heat and stir in the seeds, then strain, reserving the syrup reduction. Spread seeds to dry with their candy coating.

Fill a 3-quart saucepan with water and salt and bring to a boil, slowly whisking in the four grain meals. Simmer at medium heat, stirring with wood spoon until mixture starts to thicken. Stir in vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks and reserved syrup reduction. Lower heat and stir until porridge is thick and creamy. Remove cinnamon sticks and pour into bowls. Garnish with chickpea flour, ground coconut, and candied anise and fennel seeds, and biochar.

Biochar Middle Eastern Plates

Serves 4-6

Despite what your Uncle Harry tells you, Christmas is observed in most Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia currently has a ban on any other religion besides Islam but Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria have lots of Christians. This plate is made of many of the delicacies you will find at Christmas dinner in the Holy Land. Most of the ingredients can be grown in four season greenhouses anywhere.

Biochar Ghannouj

Serves 4-6


1 large eggplant
1 clove garlic
1/4 - 1/2 c lemon juice (depending on taste)
3 Tbsp tahini
1 tsp salt
3 tsp olive oil

2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp biochar


Preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake eggplant for 30 minutes, or until outside is crisp and inside is soft. Allow to cool for 20 minutes. Cut open and scoop out the flesh into colander and allow to drain for 10 minutes. Removing the excess liquid helps to eliminate a bitter flavor.

Place eggplant flesh in a medium bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mash together. You can also use a food processor instead of by hand and pulse for about 2 minutes. 

Place in serving bowl and top with biochar, lemon juice and olive oil. Add other garnishes, such as pine nuts and red pepper, according to taste and local availability.


Wheat-free Biochar Spinach Fatayer
Serves 4-6

Wheat-free Dough:
1 c steamed rice (reserved from Piccadillo)
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp vegetable oil

Biochar Spinach Filling:

1/2 lb fresh spinach, finely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 c walnuts, chopped
1/8 tsp ground sumac berries

¼ c biochar

Preheat over to 425 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine rice and salt. Add oil and mash. Once oil is absorbed, add 1/4 c warm water. Knead into an elastic dough and form into balls.

Wash spinach and soak in salted water while you chop onion and walnuts. Rinse spinach and dry thoroughly with paper towel. Combine and toss filling ingredients.

Place 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each ball of dough. Cover filling with dough and form into triangular shape. Dip dough triangles in biochar. Bake for 10-15 minutes on greased baking sheet, until golden brown. 

Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

Other Offerings:

Steamed Brussels Sprouts

The classic method of steaming uses a steamer basket or insert. Bring about an inch of water to a boil in the bottom of a pot into which your steamer basket or insert fits. Put trimmed and cleaned brussels sprouts in the steamer basket, set over the boiling water, cover, and steam until tender to the bite, about 5 minutes.

Alternatively, bring a scant 1/2 inch salted water to boil in a large frying pan or saute pan. Add brussels sprouts, cover, and cook until sprouts are tender to the bite and water has evaporated, about 5 minutes (depending on how crisp you like your cooked sprouts).

Serve with melted butter for dipping, shaker of salt and grinder for pepper.

Biochar Shiitake Pickles

We started experimenting with this right after we had harvested the last of our summer eggplant and hard rains brought us a bounty of fall shiitake. We finished making the eggplant pickles as planned, following our mother's recipe from The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, and then we made shiitake pickles the same way, but adding a sprinkling of biochar to the ferment.

2 lbs shiitake mushrooms and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage
1 qt cider or white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp pickling salt
1 Tbsp biochar
2 c extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
3 jalapeño peppers
1 fresh chili habañero, deseeded and chopped finely
Sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage

Wash and stem the mushrooms and slice them across the cap in strips. Place in a mixing bowl, layering in 2 Tbsp of pickling salt and 1 Tbsp of biochar and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage as you go. Compress under weight overnight. This will bring a salty brine to the surface that submerges the mushrooms.

The next day, prepare sterilized pickling jars and have them at the ready.

Drain off the brine. If you prefer reduced sodium in your diet, briefly rinse the mushrooms in a colander but try not to rinse away the herbs and biochar. Sauté the mushrooms in a wok of preheated olive oil, adding sliced garlic and chilies, about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms and garlic begin to brown. Remove the mushrooms, peppers and garlic and immerse in a bowl filled with vinegar. Place the hot mushrooms and pickling marinade into the sterilized jars, filling them to the very top. Cover completely with the marinade and put the lids on tightly. Put the jars aside until they're cool. Clean the jars, attach sticky labels and write the date and the contents on them. Store the jars somewhere cool and dark - it's best to leave them for about 2 weeks before opening so the vegetables really get to marinate well, but if you absolutely cannot wait, you can eat them sooner. They'll keep for about 3 months.

Dessert: Stuffed Dates with Biochar 

Serves 4-6

1/2 c butter or margarine such as Earth Balance
2 c powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp rice or almond milk (or more, as needed)
15 pitted dates
15 toasted almonds or pecans
Powdered sugar for dusting
1 tsp biochar


Beat together the butter or margarine, vanilla extract, and 1 cup of the powdered sugar until they are well mixed. Slowly add remaining powdered sugar until all is mixed in. Continue to beat with mixer and add rice milk a little bit at a time until frosting is smooth and fluffy.

Stuff dates with one toasted almond or pecan per date. Roll in powdered sugar. Place on greased wax paper in the refrigerator until ready to serve. 

Serve stuffed dates with dusting of biochar and powdered sugar, and coffee or tea.

Happy Holidays! 

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