Take a peek at our book about how we tried to raise every ingredient we’d need for 4 seasonal menus—right in our backyard. Plus: recipes
January 27, 2011
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How we got started
In 2007, as the locavore wave was building, Sunset launched a project called the One-Block Diet. We designed a summery menu calling for ingredients that we thought we might be able to grow or make right here on the magazine’s grounds in Menlo Park, California—and then we did our best to actually create it. We planted vegetables and fruits (easy), pressed our own olive oil (a bit more challenging), made wine and beer and cheese (bring it on!), and even raised chickens and bees.
The story of that menu ran in our August 2008 issue, but we didn’t stop there. Along with Team Cow, Team Tea, and Team Escargot (when your garden gives you snails …), the project spawned a blog—which won a James Beard award in 2009—and now a book.
Also, check out this funvideoabout our One-block experience atSunset!
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Our backyard garden laid the foundation for the entire One-Block phenomenon here at Sunset. In The One-Block Feast, we give a quick and easy basic guide to organic gardening, including how to plant and fertilize. You’ll also find illustrated planting plans, a year-round planting and harvesting calendar (with versions for every region in the country), and growing instructions for every crop, so your garden will yield the best results. “It’s really fun to bring what you’ve grown into the kitchen,” says Test Garden Coordinator and Team Garden member Johanna Silver. “It gives the garden a lot of value.”
More Videos From Sunset
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Team Mushroom took both the fast route, raising mushrooms from logs that you purchase as kits, and the slow, planting a morel patch in our garden. As you’ll see in The One-Block Feast, the kits make growing mushrooms as easy as growing a houseplant. ”It’s like a fun science project,” says Associate Food Editor Elaine Johnson. “Only you get to eat it.” Home-cultivated mushrooms have a delicious, mild flavor and tender texture, and you can experiment with several varieties.
Morels, on the other hand, are a long-term endeavor, with no guarantees that you will reap the rewards the first year (we are still waiting; the planting process is pictured here). But what rewards when they do come! Few treats compare with a panful of fragrant, earthy morels sautéed in butter.
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What could be more idyllic than a flock of hens happily clucking in your backyard? Team Chicken got six baby chicks and raised them to provide eggs, not meat. (We wanted protein we wouldn’t have to kill.) “They were just so cute!” says Jim McCann, Sunset’s Art Director and leader of Team Chicken. “They weren’t afraid of anything. They were like a litter of puppies. And it’s been nice to see them grow from fuzzy chicks into regal chickens.” They yield a side benefit, too: their droppings, which make great fertilizer for our garden. Plus, chickens are unexpectedly entertaining. We enjoy watching them scratch around, and we like feeding them treats. We feel the obligation to make them safe and comfortable and healthy. And we like their eggs a lot.
In The One-Block Feast, you’ll get loads of tips on raising chickens, from equipment to feeding.
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Getting a cow might seem like a large leap for suburbanites like us, but we had good reasons. Milk had been part of our one-block feasts from the start—mainly for cheese. We’d been using milk from Straus Family Creamery, in Northern California . But if we could have a cow—especially a Jersey, a breed that gives particularly rich, delicious milk—we could get that much closer to one of our key ingredients.
Our city, Menlo Park, allows backyard cows. But for many reasons, including our total lack of experience, Team Cow decided our cow would be better off living on a farm and being taken care of by people who knew what they were doing—and could teach us.
The rewards so far include learning to milk by hand; the pleasure of wandering around a beautiful and well-managed farm with healthy cows; the incomparable flavor of sweet, fresh Jersey milk; and the fun of making cheese (you can find our recipes in The One-Block Feast).
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Milk needs very little encouragement to become cheese. Add heat and coagulant (like vinegar or lemon juice) and curds separate from whey to create, tah-dah, cheese. “What most surprised me about making cheese,” says Elaine Johnson, Sunset’s Associate Food Editor, “is how easy it was. Anyone can do it!”
Team Cheese’s first cheeses, for our summer feast, couldn’t have been simpler, because we restricted ourselves to what we could get from our garden: lemons for coagulation and herbs for flavoring, plus salt, which we made from seawater, and milk, from a local dairy (and eventually from our own cow). But even with our super-simple cheeses, the results were slightly different depending on how we adjusted the variables: temperature, time, amounts, and technique.
As our one-block project continued, we kept making our simple cheeses, but we also learned to use cheese cultures and rennet. Once we started playing around with presses and brines, the chances for variation only multiplied. In The One-Block Feast, we share the full cheese-making process and recipes for several varieties, from ricotta to gouda.
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Growing edibles inevitably means growing snails, especially because our garden is organic and hospitable to wildlife. We have a big snail population snacking on our carefully tended leafy vegetables. One day our Test Garden Coordinator suggested that we eat them. Eat them? As in—escargots?
That was definitely the French approach to dealing with snails in the garden. But were ours the type of snails that could be eaten? And, most important, how would we make them taste like the French gourmet item served in overpriced restaurants?
After experimenting and consulting several authorities on snail-raising and cooking, Team Escargot finally got the hang of it—with delicious results fully detailed in The One-Block Feast.
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Team Bee began its bee adventure in part because we needed honey to sweeten our feast. But we also did it for the love of bees.
You have probably heard the statistic: bees are responsible for producing about one-third of our country’s food supply, because they pollinate our plants. Unfortunately for them and for us, they have been dying in huge numbers over the past several years. No one has conclusively understood why. We figured that by raising bees, we would contribute, in at least a small way, to the overall population of bees. “The learning experience is so worth it,” says Margaret Sloane, Sunset’s Production Coordinator and Team Bee’s main blogger. “Most people don’t know about the lives in the hive. And it’s so relaxing. Whenever I’m stressed, I go out and watch them.”
"Another nice thing about bees," says Brianne McElhiney, Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief, "is that they smell like honey."
Try beekeeping yourself with The One-Block Feast’s step-by-step guide to raising honeybees and making honey.
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Of all the projects we chronicle in The One-Block Feast, this may have been the most far-fetched. Especially once we’d read Michael Pollan’s account in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he scavenges water from trash-strewn wetlands and evaporates it on his stove top into brown salt that, he writes, “actually made me gag.”
But Team Salt persisted because we knew we had to have seasoning for our dinner, and figured—what with the San Francisco Bay to one side of us and the Pacific Ocean on the other, we had some water to choose from. It would be copping out to just go buy salt.
The process proved surprisingly easy, and the yield was much higher than we had expected. And our salt looked pretty (pure white), smelled fresh, tasted exactly like the ocean, and made a fine seasoning for our feast.
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We needed some sort of cooking fat for our feast, and Sunset’s 21 olive trees—loaded with thousands of ripening olives—gave us the answer: olive oil. Plus, we’d be using olives that otherwise dropped onto the ground and into the bushes, feeding only the birds and insects.
Unfortunately, they were feeding the insects a little too well. Our olives, we learned, were thoroughly infested with the maggots of olive fruit flies. So Team Olive picked olives at a nearby, fruit-fly-free olive farm instead and drove them to a commercial olive press, where we had planned to press our olives anyway. “Seeing the olives being crushed in the mill, and the sensuality of the smells and sounds of the mill—that was the best part,” says Trina Enriquez, Sunset Copy Editor. And tasting the jewel-green new oil, of course!
In The One-Block Feast, we detail every aspect of the making of oil, from picking to crushing to bottling.
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Delicious, fancy vinegars are easy to find in the United States. Go to a well-stocked grocery store and you can get everything from French Banyuls to Spanish sherry to Italian balsamic.
What is harder to find is good ordinary red-wine vinegar. Most of what is available commercially for a couple of bucks a bottle is thin and flavorless. Slightly better, though only marginally, is vinegar made using a speeded-up fermentation process (anywhere from one to three days). Traditional red-wine vinegar, left to ferment naturally on its own, takes about seventy-five days and results in a much richer texture and flavor. “It’s more complex and more subtle than anything you can buy,” says Julie Chai, Sunset’s Associate Garden Editor and Team Vinegar member.
As you’ll learn in The One-Block Feast, the good news is that “slow vinegar” is easy to make at home, tastes wonderful, and is cheap to produce (it feeds on leftover wine). Team Vinegar has two crocks going in our kitchen that yield a constant supply for salad dressings, sauces, and gifts.
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Wine making is like following a very large, very slow recipe, with strange and fascinating moments along the way. Sunset’s Managing Editor, Alan Phinney, especially remembers the punching-down phase, which is when the pressed grapes—juice, skins, and seeds—ferment together in a big vat for a couple of weeks; the skins and seeds float to the top, and have to be punched down regularly to distribute flavor and oxygen. “It smelled fantastic,” says Alan. “And it was foaming and gurgling, very organic. You could definitely tell a process was underway.” At the end of the process, with luck (as Team Wine seems to have had), you’ll have pretty decent stuff to proudly call your own.
If you can, pick your own grapes. We considered quitting our day jobs after our experience of harvesting dusty, juicy Syrah grapes in Thomas Fogarty Winery’s remote and gorgeous Fat Buck Ridge Vineyard in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.
The home wine-making journey we detail in The One-Block Feast will get under your skin and give you a huge appreciation for the quality in the bottles you buy. Just remember to keep a record of everything you do to your wine and to sanitize everything every step of the way. Then celebrate the chance to use that high-school chemistry.
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Most people think of mead as an overly spiced and unbearably sweet beverage found only at Renaissance faires, but there is a whole world of delicious, easy-to-drink mead, both sweet and dry. Along with beer and wine, it is one of our most ancient drinks. Dozens of different styles of mead exist, from a type made with mulberries to another using honey and apple juice fermented together.
Team Mead was inspired to have a crack at it after Team Bee accompanied our local beekeepers’ guild to Rabbit’s Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, California. We chatted with the owner and acclaimed mead maker, Michael Faul, and realized that basic mead was not hard to make: Honey, water, and yeast are all it takes. The One-Block Feast shares the easy steps to making a delicious batch. “I was really surprised by how well it turned out,” says Brianne McElhiney, Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief. “We’ve tasted quite a few meads that were like cough medicine. But ours tasted pretty good—light and refreshing and easy to drink.”
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As you’ll see in The One-Block Feast, making home-brewed beer doesn’t take long. You can make ale, the easiest type, in only four to six weeks. Also, you can play around with all sorts of ratios and roasts to make exactly the kind of beer you like. The biggest challenge is becoming familiar with the process and with the key pieces of equipment.
Most home brewers use brewing kits to make beer, and that’s how Team Beer started, too. For our second batch, we made beer totally from scratch—as in, we used the wheat and barley that we had planted, threshed, winnowed, and malted (sprouted) ourselves, and grew hop flowers (called cones) for flavoring and preserving the brew. We were in a little over our heads, but we had expert advice and fun doing it. “We were amazed that it worked at all, and that it was drinkable and none of us got sick,” says Rick LaFrentz, Sunset’s head gardener and leader of Team Beer.
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Attempting to grow, here in Menlo Park, Camellia sinensis—a crop that’s happiest in, say, the rain forests of Yunnan or the hill stations of India—was probably our most far-fetched The One-Block Feast project.
First Team Tea had to find mature tea bushes and figure out where they would grow best on the Sunset grounds. After that, the actual processing of the tea turned out to be pretty simple. We are still in the early days of tea growing. So far, we’ve had one very small harvest from our three bushes, which resulted in a single pot of pale yellow, very delicate, distinctly tea-flavored brew. But we’re looking forward to learning, and drinking, more.
Written by Margo True
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Written by Margo True
Team Kitchen: seasonal recipes from The One-Block Feast
Corn Soup with Roasted Poblanos and Zucchini Blossoms
The essence of sweet, just-picked summer corn, this soup lends itself to a gardenful of garnishes; besides the roasted poblanos and zucchini blossoms, we sprinkled it with crumbles of easy-to-make fresh oregano cheese. It is equally good hot or cold.
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Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Margo True
Tomato and Herb Salad with Fresh Chive Cheese
This salad tastes and looks especially wonderful with a mixture of tomato varieties, and for us was the incentive to grow five different kinds: prolific, super-sweet, ‘Sun Gold’ and red ‘Sweet 1000’ cherry tomatoes; rich-tasting red ‘Early Girl’; jade-striped ‘Green Zebra’; tender, yellow-and-red ‘Marvel Stripe’; and the luscious, magenta-purple ‘Brandywine.’
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Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Margo True
Pattypan Squash with Eggs
Harvest or buy the squashes when they are 4 inches across. We found that this was the perfect size for holding a single large egg. Since our chickens had just started laying, their eggs tended to be small, so some of our squashes held two eggs. (If the egg won’t quite fit, scoop out a little of the white with a spoon.)
We especially loved the flavor of our sweet, honeyed ‘Ambrosia’ cantaloupes in this sorbet, but the greenish ‘Sharlyn’ melons and ‘Sugar Baby’ watermelons were good too. The sorbet is best when eaten as soon as possible after freezing, because the lack of refined sugar makes it turn icy as it sits in the freezer. The good news is that any leftover sorbet makes an excellent granita: Turn it into a square baking pan, rake it with a fork until fluffy, cover, and freeze. To serve, let the granita sit at room temperature for 5 minutes, then re-rake with the fork until fluffy.