The Joy of Backyard Baking + Recipe: Cream of Vegetable Soup

Issue No. 70

Some oven lovin’ and a creamy soup for the soul. Also! It’s Matt’s birthday! 🎂 🥳 Make his day by replying to this email with your favorite funny internet video.

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I have a new favorite feeling. Standing in my backyard, sweaty-faced, arm hairs singed, shaping pizza after pizza and watching them transform into crispy, airy, leopard-spotted pies in just two minutes. I’m cooking in a spot where a few months ago there lived a busted jacuzzi. Now a giant wood-fired masonry oven stands tall, the crown jewel of my pizza queendom.

Over the summer my friend Mimi started dating an energetic tinkerer named Brett. He has a construction background and he LOVES projects. Brett approached me about building a wood oven in my backyard. Even though I barely knew the guy and had zero personal knowledge of how to build, maintain, or operate a wood oven, that’s an offer you can’t refuse.

The construction took place over three months. We decided to build an absolutely gigantic oven, which required thousands of pounds of concrete. We also chose to mix all of the concrete by hand, because we are masochists. Brett was the brains, and I assisted with a bit of brawn, as did Mimi and my boyfriend Sean. At no point in the construction process did I understand the science or engineering behind what we were doing. Brett would explain to me how mixing vermiculite in with the concrete would help retain heat, and why it was imperative to calculate the arch of the dome exactly right. I would nod my head and continue mixing concrete, or pouring concrete, or slathering concrete onto various surfaces. 

By late February, the oven build was complete. Brett held up his end of the bargain. Now I needed to learn how to actually use the thing. I ordered some books and watched a lot of YouTube and spent hours on internet forums filled with intense engineer bros. 

For the last month I have dedicated myself to figuring out how to bake bread in this Stone Age contraption. I don’t think I have been so ill-equipped for a task since I tried out for the sixth grade volleyball team. The oven temp was always too hot or too cold. The breads coming out were burnt on the bottom and doughy in the middle, or pancakes with no oven spring. But I kept at it. I would solve one problem, and then a new one would pop up. I watched more YouTube and reread chapters of my wood oven textbooks. I phoned other bakers for answers. My friends and family have been very kindly eating up all of the misshapen, slightly burnt, doughy-in-the-middle bread.

My friend Rob came by with his four-year-old daughter Alice to pick up some particularly wacky-looking baguettes. I was expressing my frustration over the quality of the breads, and being the good father he is, he turned to Alice and said, “You see? Jackie doesn’t feel like she is very good at baking in her new oven. But she really wants to get better, so she’s working hard and practicing. It’s important to commit to something, even if it seems hard.”

Last week was the first time I felt proud of the bread coming out of the oven. I’m far from being a wood fire master, but I would have felt good about selling those loaves. What I’m learning about this oven is that the process truly comes first. I love getting up early and staring at the raging fire, or the smell of the baking bread that hits me when I walk outside. I love making sandwiches from the still-hot loaves — even the funny-looking one. My miraculous oven, all three or four thousand pounds of it, will be an important fixture of my home and work for the foreseeable future. It might not have been the most practical choice, but I’m glad it magicked its way into my life.

love,
Jackie

Follow more backyard projects and fermenting experiments on Sunshine + Microbes Instagram.


A Diagram to Success

A simple activity to help save the planet

Why did I make this chic little Venn diagram? It’s an idea I learned from How To Save a Planet

How To Save a Planet is a vital new addition to the climate podcast genre from Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (of All We Can Save) and Alex Blumberg (of Gimlet). The latest episode, “Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?,” digs into some well-trod Sunshine + Microbes territory: should we rely on systemic change or individual action to save the planet? The answer, of course, is it’s complicated. 

The climate problem is too large and any individual action is just a grain of sand in the ocean of this crisis. But guess what haters?! That doesn’t mean individual actions don’t matter. Individual actions help us keep our eyes on the prize. As guest Dr. Katharine Wilkson puts it:

Anything that keeps us focused moment to moment on the world that we want to create is a good thing, right? I can’t vote three times a day but I do eat three times a day. And I think every time we do these things it gives us a chance to reflect on our values, reflect on our connection to the planet’s living systems, to think about what it is that we’re trying to do here.

And when actions spark other people to change their behavior, that can have a huge impact. Greta Thunberg stopped flying, and then a bunch of Europeans followed suit, and now the U.K. is considering a carbon tax on frequent fliers. One person’s action can spark exponential change.

Johnson and Blumberg want listeners to think strategically about what actions they can take. They suggest creating a Venn diagram- What are you good at? What is the work that needs doing? What brings you joy?

Join me in making one! You can draw it with pen and paper, and take a photo. If you do, email it to us at sunshineandmicrobes@gmail.com or post it on Instagram and tag @How2SaveAPlanet and @sunshineandmicrobes. 🚨As an incentive, if you live near Stuart, Fla., Jackie will bake you a loaf of bread. For real. 🚨

-Jackie


🛑COVID Doesn’t Discriminate. But People Do. | Eater

The pandemic has laid bare all types of society inequities and exposed how deep discrimination is baked into U.S. culture. That includes fears over covid-19 “manifesting as racism and xenophobia against Chinese people and, in many countries, anyone who passes for Chinese.” That racism exploded in the worst way possible last week when a 21-year-old white man killed eight people at an attack on Asian spas in Atlanta. Six of the eight shooting victims were women of Asian descent.

Jenny Zhang actually wrote this Eater article in February about the rise in anti-Asian violence. But it goes to show the writing was on the wall, and that the attack should not shock anyone after a long period of demonization of Asian people, with a specific fixation on China.

People who live in metropolitan areas started “Save Chinatown” campaigns last year after the pandemic struck to support local communities. But the well-meaning photos with takeout food feel small right now. Zhang writes:

The efforts to save Chinatowns through their restaurants and this year of violence against Chinese and other Asian people are symptoms of the same problem: a relationship mediated through consumption, without quite knowing what to do with the people behind those goods, who are imperiled by the physical threat of assaults, as well as longstanding threats like poverty and displacement. Americans may love Chinese food, but they don’t love the people who make it. They treat Chinatowns like playgrounds, their residents like backdrops for photos. 

Stopping Asian hate and fixing societal inequities will require bigger steps, including treating Chinatowns as neighbors — not just tourist attractions — and by getting to understand the dehumanizing root causes in U.S. culture that spark such violence.

Donate to Stop AAPI Hate

📗Mark Bittman Cooked Everything. Now He Wants to Change Everything | The Ezra Klein Show

Mark Bittman is one of the most prolific cookbook authors of the 21st Century. His book “How to Cook Everything” is a staple in homes across the nation.  He taught me how to make polenta. But his latest book moves outside the kitchen.. Instead of providing foolproof cooking instruction, he’s trying to get his readers riled up about the scary realities of our food system. Kind of like our newsletter! The book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk”, “raises profound questions between the relationship among humans and animals and plants and capitalism and technology and morality.” 

This excellent interview criss-crosses through some of Bittman’s biggest beefs with the system, from why nobody takes hippies seriously — even though they make a lot of sense when it comes to food — to why so many people are undernourished in a system that produces so much food.

🎣Mental Health and the Modern Fisherman | Hakai Magazine

As the saying goes, men would rather do anything than go to therapy. But advocates are working to change that for the rugged fishermen of New England. The men who grew up in water around the Gulf of Maine are enduring a frightening new reality — the fish are disappearing. Global warming is reducing local catches, threatening the economic survival of the region. 

Toxic algae bloom and confusing, poorly coordinated regulations have left fishermen struggling with feelings of stress, fatigue, chronic pain, and helplessness. Climate change is compounding the usual stressors of fishing: deadly storms, sinking vessels and PTSD from a life spent on the ocean’s ragin’ glory. The organization Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), led by director of community programs Monique Coombs, has witnessed these challenges and wants to end the stigma of seeking therapy in an uncertain world:

Modeled after Farm Aid, a nonprofit that offers financial support and mental health resources to agricultural workers and their families, Coombs’s project has two aims: to combat the stigma and accessibility obstacles that prevent fishermen from seeking help, and to shed light on the psychological fallout that comes when a constant onslaught of destabilizing factors pushes an industry, and its workers, to the brink.


Cream of Vegetable Soup

Got too many veggies in the fridge that are in danger of getting wasted? Make a soup! A creamy, hearty soup of roasted veggies is always satisfying, particularly on some of these last coldish nights of winter. This is a sort of skeleton recipe, where you can sub in the ingredients that you have on hand to make something unique. Think squash and pear with cinnamon and sage, or curried carrots and sweet potatoes with yogurt.

I’m including some flavor inspiration below the recipe, but don’t be afraid to experiment with what you have on hand!

Makes 2-3 servings

ingredients

  • 1 roasting pan full of veggies (mix and match whatever you like: onions, garlic, potatoes, squash, apples, broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms. Whatever you think will taste nice together)

  • 2-4 cups broth of choice (veggie, chicken, etc)

  • 1/2 cup something creamy (coconut milk, heavy cream, yogurt, or milk)

  • 2-3 tablespoons sweetener of choice (honey, maple syrup, etc)

  • 1-2 tablespoons acid of choice (lemon juice, vinegar, etc)

  • 2 tablespoons of herbs and/or spices of choice

  • olive oil

  • salt to taste

step-by-step

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Prep vegetables for roasting. Cut them into large chunks, or slice in half to roast cut-side facing down. 

  2. Arrange veggies on roasting pan. Splash in a glug or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and chosen spices. Toss and massage to coat the veggies. Roast for 30 minutes, or until softened and beginning to brown.

  3. Once veggies are cooked, remove any tough skin or seeds . Add veggies to a blender (the more powerful the blender, the smoother the soup), along with 2 cups of broth. Blend until smooth.

  4. Add blender puree to pot and cook over medium-high heat. Taste the soup. sweetener, acid, and salt as needed to balance out flavor. Add more broth and stir until the texture is pleasing. Once hot, stir in something creamy. Serve with crusty bread and top with a swizzle of olive oil and honey and a grinding of pepper.

flavor ideas

  • Tomato, eggplant, onions, garlic, harissa powder

  • Butternut squash, pear, leeks, sage, cinnamon

  • Carrots, sweet potato, curry powder, coconut milk

  • Broccoli, onions, apple, mustard, grated cheddar

  • Potatoes, onions, garlic, smoked paprika

  • Mushrooms, potatoes, onions, mixed herbs

Recipe: Fermented Garlic Paste


Here’s a rundown of upcoming classes and other food events happening virtually or in South Florida. Email us at sunshineandmicrobes@gmail.com with calendar submissions!

Making Fire Cider with Kitchen Scraps with Julia Skinner | FL Ferment Fest | March 26 at 6 p.m. | IG Live

Pizza History | Scott’s Pizza Tours | Every other Sunday at 6 p.m. | $10

Intro to Natural Cheesemaking: Soft Cheeses, Aged and Fresh | The Black Sheep School | April 18th 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. | $100


Pettiness and imagined feuds abound on the Internet. What better way to enjoy the drama than turning it into a song? I’ve had this banger about a “broccoli casserole thief” stuck in my head for days. (And here’s a gripping altercation about the world’s largest horse).


Talk to Us

Send in your comments, mailbag questions, recipe mishaps, or cooking tips: sunshineandmicrobes@gmail.com. Also do us a favor and follow us on Facebook and InstagramVisit our website and cook yourself something nice.

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Sunshine + Microbes team
Jackie Vitale is a cook and kitchen educator based in Stuart, Fla . She is co-founder of the Florida Ferment Fest. Her newsletter explores the intersection of food, culture, environment and community.

Matt Levin is a communications specialist at the ACLU of Texas. He edits Sunshine + Microbes and contributes other scraps to each issue.