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Back Yard Sancocho

Sometimes in my fiddling with recipes I stretch a dish until it breaks, too far removed from the original flavors or technique to be covered by that name any more. I thought maybe I had done that with this dish, but after doing a bit of research on sancocho (and its culinary brethren, ajiaco) I think I’m still well within the boundaries. Sancocho is a thick, slow-simmered stew filled with tropical root vegetables. The base is always some variation of sofrito and whatever meats are available, usually more than one kind. There are fish versions, too! This is a dish with many regional and seasonal variations, and I think my “Floribbean” version fits just fine.
These are all subtropical/tropical root vegetables. From the top left: ube yam, boniato, yellow yam (called in our local grocery store nyame to not confuse it with sweet potatoes, which some people around here call yams), yautia/white malanga, sweet potato (in Spanish speaking countries also called camote and batata), and cassava/yuca. The cassava and sweet potato I harvested out of my back yard. The yautia I am also growing in my back yard but it’s not ready for harvesting. The yellow yam, boniato, and purple yam I am going to be growing in the coming year and are grown all around me. I bought extra roots for sprouting.
While I am disappointed with the size of my cassava harvest this year, I am pleased with the way the roots taste. See the pure white color? That’s because these were dug up and processed for cooking on the same day. I found out the hard way this year just how perishable these roots are. When you buy cassava in the grocery store they are dipped in wax to help preserve them and even then often have gray streaks and soft moldy spots. Let me tell you, fresh cassava really tastes different than the dessicated moldy wax-covered roots you buy in the grocery store. The frozen is much better if you must choose the grocery store.
Maricel Presilla says that “In the Americas, sancochar came to mean cooking by slow simmering until the meat comes off the bones and the vegetables practically melt into the broth”. That’s definitely what you want here. This stew is wonderfully flexible. Use whatever tropical roots you have. You can add chunks of calabaza/pumpkin, green bananas (guineos verdes) or green-to-yellow plantains. You could even add potatoes and carrots if you like. In summer slices of corn on the cob are traditional. You can definitely make a more traditional sofrito than mine- my hubby can’t eat onions so the sofrito used here definitely isn’t traditional. If you can’t find aji dulce or aji cachucha then you can use a mixture of sweet red peppers and cubanelle peppers, but whatever you do, don’t buy the recaito in a jar- it’s terrible.

Back Yard Sancocho

1 cup Caribbean soup base
2 tbl lard, infused with achiote if you have it
4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried oregano
salt & pepper
1 lb chicken legs and thighs, or boneless thighs
1 lb smoked pork ribs, or any smoked pork cut that’s not too fatty
6-8 c water or chicken broth
1-lb cassava root
1 yautia/malanga
1 sweet potato
1 boniato
1 yellow yam
Extra fresh culantro/recao or cilantro for serving

Melt the lard over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot. When the lard is hot, add the soup base, chopped garlic, and cumin. While the sofrito is cooking, you can start to get the roots ready. Tropical roots oxidize very quickly. Get a large bowl of cold water ready. Peel the yautia, sweet potato, boniato, and yellow yam. Immediately put each peeled root into the water. Once they’re all peeled, take each out of the water and cut it into chunks and put it back into the water immediately. Now cut the cassava into narrow pieces, peel each piece, remove the vein, and cut into smaller pieces. (If you’ve never processed whole cassava roots, instructions and photos are here) Cassava cooks slower than most of the other roots, so cut the cassava smaller. Fry the soup base until it starts to dry out and sizzle. Add the meats, roots, oregano, about a teaspoon of salt, and enough chicken broth or water to almost cover the roots. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, turn down to low and simmer for an hour. Lift the lid, stir, and continue simmering until all of the roots are cooked through. Pull the chicken and pork out, remove the meat, shred it and add it back to the pot. Taste the broth and add salt, pepper, oregano to taste.

De-Seeding Peppers

I found a new technique to de-seed peppers in large batches!

I don’t like pepper seeds. They have a terrible texture, tend to get bitter after long cooking, and are sometimes the hottest part of the pepper. If you want to take the heat down a notch or two in anything with lots of chiles, you can remove the seeds. I got a huge bag of aji dulce chiles and wanted to make sofrito, but the chiles were a teeny bit too hot and I wanted to get rid of the seeds.


So many peppers! These gorgeous peppers were grown at Forage Farm.

I cut the stem off each pepper and cut them in half.


Now take the halved peppers and put them in the food processor. Process in bursts until the flesh is finely chopped but not pureed. scrape the minced chiles into a bowl and cover with water by at least an inch.


The pepper seeds float to the top! Isn’t that great? Stir the bowl gently to get all the seeds to float.


And then you just scoop them out with a strainer! Isn’t that cool? After you’ve removed all the pepper seeds, drain the minced chiles and proceed with the recipe. I was making sofrito.

seasoning base1

Winter 2016 Cassava Harvest


I had a crap cassava harvest this year. Seriously crap. No diseases or anything, but less than ten pounds of usable roots out of six plants. This bed is on the north side of the house and just doesn’t get enough sun. The soil’s good though, and it’s a very protected spot, so I’ll probably dig up the non-edible elephant ears and plant taro here.


I have learned my lesson though. The first plant I dug up, I left the roots attached to the root crown and outside for three days. Then I went out to cut the usable roots off the root crown and brought them in to cook them up and they were completely streaked with gray. The roots had already started to oxidize, and they’re no good to eat after they start to oxidize. They taste bad. So the rest of the small harvest I processed immediately. Cassava is much easier to peel when it’s freshly dug. What I couldn’t use within a couple of days I froze. In the spring I will be moving the cassava bed to the sunny front yard into a bed that I’ve been composting in place for a couple months already.

Farm Progress!


This morning the surveyors came! They said it would only take an hour, it took almost four hours because the property had not been surveyed since the 1940’s. Fascinating process. Now to start the fencing.

Strawberry Loquat Compote

strawberryloquatcompote2We eat pancakes or waffles almost every Sunday, but I haven’t bought pancake syrup in more than 10 years. Instead we top our pancakes with homemade jam and whipped cream or butter and honey, but our favorite by far is ricotta cheese and fruit compote. Compotes are cooked fruits in thick syrup. Sometimes they’re spiced, sometimes not. Compotes are an excellent way to use up seasonal fruits that are on the verge of getting over-ripe. I like making batches of compote with seasonal fruits all through the year and then freezing them in single-meal amounts or water-bath canning them if I have time. Compotes can be used to top pancakes, waffles, ice cream, simple cake, biscuits, and my favorite- panna cotta.
loquatsAll of you locals should already be familiar with loquats. Look around, they’re everywhere. The trees are common all over Florida and often fruit twice a year. They often fruit heavily and the fruit is easy to collect. They are a little fussy to prepare (which is why they haven’t gained much popularity) but they taste like slightly tart apricots and work beautifully with strawberries. Since strawberries are just arriving at our local farmers markets, this is an excellent combination to take advantage of these fruits.

Strawberry Loquat Compote

2 pints fresh strawberries
1 pint fresh loquats
scant 1/3 cup blonde organic Florida sugar
pinch of salt
Wash the fruit carefully. Top and slice the strawberries thickly and put them in a sauce pan. Remove the stems of the loquats. Slice around the flesh of each loquat, lengthwise, pop them open, and pull out the hard seeds and the tough seed covering. Then slice the remaining flesh and add to the strawberries. Sprinkle the sugar over the fruit. Turn the heat on medium until the fruit starts to simmer. Turn the heat to medium low and simmer covered until the fruit is cooked and lots of juices have been released. Stir in a pinch of salt and then either serve immediately or refrigerate.

Yesterday I Was On TV

The farm has basically been on hold for the past few months. I haven’t lost the vision, just ran out of project money and steam for a while. Then yesterday our local ABC station called me and wanted to do a local spin piece on this article published last week. Sure! Absolutely I’ll do it. “Great”, she says, “I’ll be there in 30 minutes”. Yikes! I was filmed in the acupuncture school’s dispensary where I work and then we went to my house and did a bunch more filming in my yard.


I was pretty cranky about the timing- it’s January. Most of the annuals have been harvested and many of the perennials are dormant or ratty-looking. My forest garden looks particularly ratty in the video (the reported insisted on standing in front of the bare dormant peach tree) and the questions weren’t really what I expected but everyone who watches it seems happy with it.

You can watch the video here:


One positive outcome from the interview is a renewed sense of purpose. I am passionate about growing Chinese medicinal herbs domestically. I do think that it is possible to farm in line with my personal ethics and to make money doing it. I’m still looking for a partner/investor but I can and should keep plugging away on my own until one presents him-or-herself. So, onwards and forwards. The next two hurdles are getting the property surveyed and then getting it fenced.

Autumn Mushrooms

After the rains a few weeks ago, my yard exploded with mushrooms. It helps that for a couple of years I was collecting rotten logs off of the sides of roads, inoculating my soil in preparation for planting a forest.




I really suck at mushroom identification so I’m not even going to try and identify these. I just appreciate them for their beauty and the work they’re doing breaking all that wood down into lovely rich humus.








Homemade Beef Sausage in Wild Betel Leaves

piper lolotThat’s the long description for a dish with a much shorter Vietnamese name- bo la lot. This is one of my favorite dishes to order in Vietnamese restaurants. Despite the name of the dish specifying wild betel leaves, if you order this is a restaurant you will likely get boring old grape leaves out of a jar. I’ve also seen shiso leaves substituting for la lot but I was holding out for the real thing. I finally found one of these plants at a plant sale back in April at Bamboo Grove. I’ve been nursing it along all summer. Wild betel loves water (but not too much) and fertilizer (but not too much). I’ve been feeding it dilute fish emulsion and it seems to really like it. Finally, finally the plant was big and healthy enough to harvest.

raw bo lalot

If you don’t have lalot, there are any number of reasonable substitutions. The most desirable would be fresh betel leaves, the leaves of Piper betel. These can usually be found at any well-appointed Indian grocery store and often at any grocery store catering to Indonesian and Vietnamese people, too. You can also substitute preserved grape leaves, hibiscus leaves in the South or mallow leaves in the North. I love bo la lot with cold rice noodles and salad, with nuoc cham and plenty of crushed cashews.
vietnamese dinner

Bo La Lot

1 lb ground beef, high fat content
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbl Mysore curry powder
3 large stalks of fresh lemongrass, white ends only, minced
3-4 green onions, minced
2-3 tsp fish sauce
1 tbl palm sugar (you can sub brown sugar or coconut sugar)
1 heaping tsp freshly cracked black pepper (Don’t skimp! It’s important)
1/2 tsp salt
15-20 fresh lalot leaves, or any substitution listed above.

This is making homemade sausage. It’s all about texture. Make sure to keep the beef very cold. You can use half beef and half pork, too. Take half the beef and put it in a food processor with the garlic, curry powder, lemongrass, 2 tsp of the fish sauce, and the palm sugar. Blend until it’s a smooth paste. Add the salt and pepper to the remaining cold ground beef. Then scrape the paste out of the food processor and mix with the cold ground beef by hand until the two are thoroughly mixed but the texture of the ground beef is still distinct- you don’t want the whole thing to become paste. Add the remaining teaspoon of fish sauce if the mixture seems dry.

Take the leaves and wash them carefully. Boil a small pot of water. Dunk the leaves in the boiling water. Count to ten slowly. Dump the leaves out and rinse in cold water until they’re cool enough to touch. Lay each leaf out. Put a heaping tablespoon of meat mixture in the center and carefully spread the meat out from side to side. Then roll the leaf around the meat to make a cigar shape, using a dab of the meat mixture to seal the end.

Heat a dry frying pan over medium heat. Do not add oil! Add as many of the rolls as you can fit in a single layer. Let them fry slowly. The beef will render enough fat to fry the rolls. Fry until lightly browned, Gently turn over and fry the other side until lightly browned. If there’s any meat mixture left over, shape into small patties and fry until cooked through. Eat while hot.

Subtropical Herb Field Trip!

Although I doggedly grow sage, thyme, and other European and Mediterranean culinary herbs every year, I know that this really isn’t the climate for them. So I’ve been finding subtropical culinary herbs to grow along with the medicinal herbs. I’ve been growing and eating different subtropical vegetables for a couple years now, finding plants that both thrive through our intensely hot & wet summers and my family will actually eat. And so far I’ve found some real winners like lambsquarters, seminole pumpkins, cassava, and taro. So a couple weeks ago I took a weekend trip south and visited two amazing places for subtropical herbs- The Mustang Flea Market in Pinellas Park and Bamboo Grove in Arcadia.
The Mustang Flea Market is 80% typical Florida flea market and 20% amazing Thai and Laotian farmers and nursery market. It was like a wonderland for me. Exotic foods everywhere! I went a little crazy buying galangal roots and hanging baskets of every southeast Asian culinary herb I didn’t already have. Then I headed further south to Arcadia and Bamboo Grove.
Somehow I didn’t get a single picture with any of the 40 or so people at the event, but here you can see the wild diversity on his farm and nursery. Plant Fest was lovely and Andy Firk’s generous spirit and hospitality are without equal. I also picked up some extremely cool plants here too. Altogether I brought home: Limnophila aromatica, Polygonum odoratum, a giant-leaf variety of Eryngium foetidum, Alpinia galanga, Alpinia officinarum, Curcuma zedoaria, Curcuma caesia, Stephania tetrandra, a couple lovely Pandanus amaryllifolius and some malanga I’m going to try growing. I’m not using common names on purpose- these plants are grown on several continents and have common names in multiple languages- how could I choose?

Eryngium foetidum is a perfect example. Despite being native to central America, this unassuming and rather spiky herb is mostly known on Caribbean islands and inexplicably, in southeast Asia and somewhat less in India. I’m not surprised that it reached there since it’s much easier to grow in hot, steamy weather than its culinary sister, cilantro. Unlike cilantro this herb thrives in part-to-full shade and needs humidity. In full sun the leaves stay small and it bolts almost immediately and dies back.

First Root Processing

I just harvested some lovely bellflower root (Platycodon grandiflorus). It’s also called jie geng (Chinese) and doraji (Korean) and used for chest colds, asthma, and congestion, opening and dispersing lung qi. It’s also well-known in Korean cuisine. This is my second year growing jie geng and I feel confident enough about growing the plant that it’s definitely getting added to the farm. Now I just have to be able to process the roots correctly.
jie gengI also re-potted most of my growing medicinal herbs nursery and split many of my zingibers- the plants in the ginger and turmeric family. The Curcuma wenyujin (Yu Jin) had grown so large that the rhizome “fingers” had pushed the plant up in the pot. I decided to harvest and dry some of the fingers for an experiment. I tasted some of the raw root- it’s incredibly strong and spicy, with a sweet & bitter edge too. Like a super-spicy/bitter carrot.
yu jinSo I let the roots dry in the shade on the porch for a day, then washed them carefully using a nail brush. Then I sliced the thicker pieces and left the thinner roots whole. I was thrilled to see the inner corona on the jie geng slices, just like what the sliced roots look like when you purchase them.
sliced jie gengSo I put them in my electric food dehydrator at 105* for 24 hours.
dry yu jinThey are definitely dry- I can snap a piece in half- but they are also shriveled up, which is not what the purchased herbs look like. The jie geng looks the same- all shriveled up. Any suggestions on why this happened? Did I dry the pieces too fast? At too high a temperature? I don’t know, I’ll have to harvest and dry more roots to find out. Next up- smilax root and comfrey root!

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