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The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table

The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table

by Margo True

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Based on the James Beard Award–winning blog The One-Block Diet, this all-in-one home gardening, do-it-yourself guide and cookbook shows you how to transform a backyard or garden into a self-sufficient locavore’s paradise.
When Margo True and her fellow staffers at Northern California–based Sunset magazine walked around the grounds


Based on the James Beard Award–winning blog The One-Block Diet, this all-in-one home gardening, do-it-yourself guide and cookbook shows you how to transform a backyard or garden into a self-sufficient locavore’s paradise.
When Margo True and her fellow staffers at Northern California–based Sunset magazine walked around the grounds of their Menlo Park office, they saw more than just a lawn and some gardens. Instead, they saw a fresh, bountiful food source, the makings for intrepid edible projects, and a series of seasonal feasts—all just waiting to happen.
The One-Block Feast is the story of how True and her team took an inspired idea and transformed it into an ambitious commitment: to create four feasts over the course of a year, using only what could be grown or raised in their backyard-sized plot. She candidly shares the group’s many successes and often humorous setbacks as they try their hands at chicken farming, cheese making, olive pressing, home brewing, bee keeping, winemaking, and more.
Grouped into gardening, project, and recipe guides for each season, The One-Block Feast is a complete resource for planning an eco-friendly kitchen garden; making your own pantry staples for year-round cooking and gifts; raising bees, chickens, and even a cow; and creating made-from-scratch meals from ingredients you’ve grown yourself. Chapters are organized by season, each featuring a planting plan and crop-by-crop instructions, an account of how that season’s projects played out for the Sunset team, and a multicourse dinner menu composed of imaginative, appealing, and ultra-resourceful vegetarian recipes, such as:
Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Chard and Sage Brown Butter  •  Egg and Gouda Crepes  •  Whole Wheat Pizzas with Roasted Vegetables and Homemade Cheeses  •  Fresh Corn Soup with Zucchini Blossoms  •  Braised Winter Greens with Preserved Lemons and Red Chile  •  Summer Lemongrass Custards  •  Honey Ice Cream
Generously illustrated and easy to follow, this ultimate resource for today’s urban homesteader will inspire you to take “eating local” to a whole new level.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Though it's not a cookbook, per se, there are plenty of recipes, and they are just what we've come to expect from this old friend: sophisticated but not off-puttingly so. . . . Whether you plan to grow hops to brew your own beer or simply want to know some good zucchini varieties to plant in your vegetable garden, this is a terrific place to start.” 
—LA Times Daily Dish blog, 6/9/11

"More and more these days, cooking has come to resemble the Scout troop activities of our youth, in which we took pride in demonstrating our ability to do it ourselves. For those who are looking to get their proverbial merit badge, consider The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table ($25) a survivor's guide of sorts. Part cookbook, part how-to manual, the book cheerfully explains how anyone can take part in cooking from the ground up, whether you have 40 acres or 40 feet."
—Tasting Table National, 3/23/11

The One Block Feast is a beautiful demonstration of how to feed yourself deliciously from a modest backyard. It is an inspiring companion for developing food craft and urban homesteading skills using what’s right out the door.”
—Anya Fernald, former executive director of Slow Food Nation, founder of Live Culture Company, and founder of the Eat Real Festival
“Magical, doable, and fun! That’s what we came away with after dining with Sunset’s One-Block team a couple of summers ago. It has inspired many a meal, a host of garden improvements, and we’re teetering on getting chickens.”
—Nikki Silva of NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters
“I’m a firm believer in seasonal, local cooking. This book shows you everything that farm-to-table eating encompasses, and I mean everything!”
—Bill Telepan, chef-owner of Telepan and executive chef of Wellness in the Schools
“Margo True and her teams of backyard researchers have taken American ideals centered around living off the land and brought them into our twenty-first-century suburban reality. ”
—Sue Conley, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery
The One-Block Feast is thoroughly irresistible. If you’ve ever considered growing your own vegetables (not so hard), raising a few chickens (seems possible), tending your own honeybee hives (really?), making cheese from the milk of your very own cow (hey, why not?), or, say, turning seawater into salt (no way!), this delightful book will help you make your dreams come true. And even if you never actually do any of the DIY projects, there are plenty of delicious seasonal recipes to enjoy.”
—Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, authors of Canal House Cooking 
"Thomas Church, who landscaped the grounds at Sunset, titled his book, Gardens are for People. So it seems utterly right that Sunset has produced The One Block Feast, a work that is truly for people. It's about producing good food but also about friends and community. It's about taking charge in this most important area of our lives and becoming strong, happy, and resilient. It's helpful, but not preachy. And it shows what's possible when a few people join forces and backyards to grow good food and harbor bees and maybe a cow, then cook and eat together."
—Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

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Read an Excerpt

It all started with the menu. In the Sunset kitchen in mid-May, we cooks dreamed about the end-of-summer dishes we wanted to make: Peppery arugula salads with a rainbow of ripe tomatoes in oranges and yellows, greens and purples, reds and pinks. A platter of avocados and oranges with paper-thin red onions. Sweet corn on the cob, definitely. Ripe figs, because we had spotted a vine growing out back. 
With a tentative menu drawn up, we sat down with the garden department and got a reality check. Arugula, a cool-season crop, would wilt in our summer heat. Our fig vine had been pruned so severely the year before that it probably wouldn’t bear much fruit—not enough to plan on, anyway. We had no avocado trees, and even if we bought some young ones, they would take several years to produce. 
There were consolations, however. We could grow good tomatoes, though they would be on the small side in our cool climate. Corn would not have the savory depth that it does in the Midwest, but it would be sweet and juicy. ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes would be no problem. “How about zucchini?” suggested Lauren Swezey, our garden projects editor. “Zucchini does really well here.” Privately, I was crushed—zucchini is just about the most boring summer vegetable I can think of. But then Lauren described a wondrous variety called ‘Trombetta di Albenga’. She took out a seed packet with a picture on it. “It curves like a trombone,” she said. “And it’s sweet and a little crunchy. Completely delicious.” We were sold. 
Over the next few days, we settled on a cooking fat (not peanut oil, because peanuts need a southern climate, or corn oil, because three cups would require about sixty pounds of corn, and we wanted to eat our corn). What Sunset did have were twenty-one olive trees, planted all around the property as landscaping back in the 1950s. They were loaded with fruit, and surely it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out how to press it. 
For seasoning, we would plant chiles, lemons, and potent summer herbs. And, because we lived close to the Pacific, it seemed worth trying to make some salt from seawater. 
What would we do for protein? Our menu sounded good, but gossamery. We asked ourselves what we were collectively capable of, and it did not include raising meat animals. Eggs and cheese seemed more doable. We could keep chickens right in the garden, and as for the milk for cheese, the closest dairy would do. We didn’t dream (then) that we might someday have a cow.
For dessert, we’d need a sweetener, and honey seemed like the natural solution. Why not try keeping some bees? Plus, all those pollinators would help our crops produce. 
Within a couple of weeks, we’d finalized our menu. I wandered out into the garden to imagine how it might all look. A pair of grapevines caught my eye. What if we made wine? Our little vines wouldn’t supply enough grapes, but maybe we could find a vineyard nearby. Wine editor Sara Schneider loved the idea and agreed to launch Team Wine. In the meantime, Rick LaFrentz, our head gardener, volunteered to lead Team Beer. He had brewed at home using kits, and wanted to try planting barley, wheat, and hops to make beer from the ground up. It was intriguingly medieval of him.
Our made-from-scratch project had not even started, and here we were, “importing” wine grapes and milk and ocean water. But we would transform the imports into foods that would be wholly our own: grapes into wine, milk into cheese, water into salt. 
Italians have a lovely word for the locally grown produce in their farmers’ markets: nostrani—“ours.” It usually sells out first because it’s often the best. That’s exactly what this summer dinner would be, from start to finish. Ours.
• • •
I walked around the office to see if any of my other colleagues wanted to join the project. Erika Ehmsen, our stately, calm copy chief, knew where we might get the hundreds of pounds of grapes we needed: Thomas Fogarty Winery, in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Her dad and Dr. Fogarty, a cardiologist, had worked together, and she’d visited as a child and had always wanted to go back. She signed up for Team Wine. Researcher Elizabeth Jardina and art director Jim McCann liked the idea of chickens. Garden associate editor Julie Chai, whose heritage is Korean and German, wanted to join Team Vinegar (formed in the wake of Team Wine). “I have kimchi on one side and sauerkraut on the other,” she told me. “I love all things fermented.” Margaret Sloan, production coordi­nator, and Kimberley Burch, imaging specialist, were drawn to Team Bee. Margaret had always thought bees were mysterious and fascinating, and Kimberley, concerned about colony collapse disorder, mainly wanted to help increase the bee population. 
By early June, we had started researching our various projects and were ready to roll. The fact that we had no experience with any of them, except cooking and gardening and a bit of beer making, did not dim our enthusiasm a bit.
That was a good thing, because it would take us about a year and a half to create everything we needed for our summer feast. The wine grapes wouldn’t be ready until October; then they’d need months to ferment and mature. The olives ripened in November. And we could not harvest the wheat and barley until the following summer.
• • •
At least we could get the chickens going. I personally yearned for fabulous-looking breeds like Silkies, whose feathers are as soft as kitten fur, or Polish, whose feather crests make them look like Tina Turner. Fancy chickens are not always the best layers, though. In the end, we just got what Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel happened to have on the day we visited, which were tiny chicks from breeds known to lay well: Ameraucanas (exciting, since they would lay blue- and green-shelled eggs), Rhode Island Reds, and Buff Orpingtons. 
We bought two of each, and fussed over them like crazy, hanging a heat lamp over their wire cage—which we put in a storage shed behind our main office building—and visiting them every couple of hours. The runt, a Rhode Island Red we called Ruby, immediately developed a condition that the feed store had warned us about: pasty butt. Untreated, it can block a chick’s digestion and be lethal. This we handled as instructed by the feed store, gingerly applying cotton balls soaked in warm water to the tiniest butt imaginable. Ruby survived.
As our chickens grew that fall, we plunged into wine making. Fogarty Winery agreed to sell us both Syrah grapes (a relatively forgiving variety, so we would have a chance of making drinkable wine) and Chardonnay juice (since pressing white grapes is much trickier than pressing the red). On a golden October morning, we drove out to the winery and picked five hundred pounds of small, luscious Syrah grapes from Fat Buck Ridge, a vineyard with sweeping views to the west. It was surprisingly fast—a couple of hours of snipping and we had all the grapes we could handle. We had a quick picnic in the vineyard, with a bottle of Fogarty Syrah from that very ridge—“the prototype, the goal . . . the competition,” Sara joked later. 
We had to crush the grapes as soon as possible. Waiting for us back at Sunset, with a giant pile of equipment, was Dan Brenzel, husband of our garden editor, Kathy Brenzel, and a serious home winemaker himself. His crusher-destemmer was entirely capable of handling our harvest. But a couple of us had seen the grape-stomping episode of I Love Lucy at an impressionable age, so we did some foot crushing, too, there in the Sunset parking lot. We laughed so hard we practically fell out of the garbage cans we were using for crushing. As Erika pointed out, it was sort of like a StairMaster. Set in quicksand. 
The next several days were tense for Team Wine. Sara woke up at 3:00 a.m. worried that our grape pulp (called must), which was soaking under the eaves in a big vat to give the juice as much flavor and color as possible, might be spoiling. So we added yeast to kick off the fermentation and crowd out any unwelcome microorganisms. (We’d already added yeast to our Chardonnay juice.) 
And at first everything went like it should. The yeast attacked the sugars and belched carbon dioxide gas, which made the pulp gurgle and foam as though it were alive. A warm, thick, seething cap of skins and seeds formed on the surface, and we punched it down a few times a day so it could deliver its goodness to the juice. But the sugar level wasn’t dropping fast enough. This meant we risked a “stuck fermentation” that could lead to spoiled wine. We decided to move our vats into the warm building, hoping to prod the yeast into gobbling more sugar. It worked, and the sugar eventually hit zero. We had gotten through the hardest part. 
Now we eased the Syrah into a slower, secondary fermentation by sprinkling in powdery, freeze-dried malolactic bacteria. It was as easy as adding salt to a stew. A few days later—once the bacteria had a chance to settle in—we pressed our wine off its skins and seeds. This involved using Dan’s homestyle basket press, which looked not unlike a toy rocket. We poured the inky slurry into the press and set up a tag team running buckets from the press’s spigot over to several waiting carboys (big glass jugs). Then, once we’d popped airlocks into the tops of the carboys, we left our beast alone to be tamed by beneficial bacteria and the gentling hand of time.
Meanwhile, our chicks had become fully feathered young hens and were ready for their coop in the test garden. The henhouse itself, which opened right into a fully enclosed yard—to keep out raccoons and other chicken hunters—was a grand sloping-roofed structure given to us by Wine Country Coops, in Napa. The hens took to it as though to the manor born, hopping up to its comfortable perches and exploring the nest boxes. Pretty soon, their personalities—yes, they do have them, it turns out—began to show: Rhode Island Red Carmelita was the boss lady, the most aggressive and the shiniest feathered. (Elizabeth worried that she might be a rooster.) Ruby was a talker, croaking insistently whenever we came to visit, as though cussing us out for something. Alana, slightly shy, was named for our managing editor, Alan Phinney, because her lustrous head feathers resembled his hair (he is a good sport about this). Her fellow Ameraucana, Ophelia, was much more outgoing and instead of clucking produced a sort of low foghorn tootle. The two Buff Orpingtons, Honey and Charlotte—both big, fluffy, and blonde—were the most inclined to jump on your lap for a pat. They weighed as much as house cats and liked to be stroked under their wings, where the down was softest. It made them burble happily, as did an ear of corn or a bulb of fennel thrown down for them to peck. And the burbling of a happy chicken is a very sweet sound.
• • •
Everything was going well. Then, in late October, disaster struck. Olives began pelting the ground weeks before we had expected to harvest them. Not only that, the fruit looked shrunken and deformed. We sent some off to The Olive Press, up in Sonoma, for advice, and were told that we had the worst infestation of olive fruit fly maggots that the store’s owner had ever seen.
Apparently, you can press olives with a small percentage of maggots—although you might end up with a flavor flaw known in the olive oil trade as “grubby” (seriously). Our fruit, though, was riddled with them. We could try treating the trees in the future, but this year the grubs had won.
We badly wanted olive oil, and we really wanted to learn how to pick and press olives. Fortunately, Valencia Creek Farms, in the Santa Cruz foothills, agreed to sell us eight hundred pounds of olives, which we could pick ourselves. So we rented a U-Haul and drove off to the foothills again. 
At the orchard, we picked big, fat green Ascolanos. The rest of our order had been harvested for us earlier that day, and although we felt a little sheepish about this, we were also very grateful when we realized that it would have taken our five Team Olive members about eleven hours to pick what we needed. 
As with grapes, speed is of the essence when pressing olives. The second they are off the trees, they start to degrade. We loaded up our twenty-two crates and drove south, to Pietra Santa Winery, near Hollister, and its olive press. The olives were destemmed and washed, and then ground by three massive stones into a pinkish, brownish paste that looked exactly like chopped liver. 
We tasted the olive oil right from the spigot. It was grass green, flecked with bits of olive, and extremely fresh and bright. The mild climate of Santa Cruz had tamed the olives, so the oil was not nearly as peppery as a typical “three-cough” Tuscan oil. We were absurdly and instantly proud of it. Our hens were not laying yet and our wine was still aging, but we had our olive oil and it felt great.
• • •

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

MARGO TRUE is the food editor at Sunset magazine. Before Sunset, she was the executive editor at Saveur and senior editor and writer at Gourmet. She has received three James Beard journalism awards for her food writing, in addition to the James Beard Award for The One-Block Diet blog—shared with fellow book contributors Erika Ehmsen, Sunset’s copy chief and a member of the One-Block project’s Team Wine; Elizabeth Jardina of Team Chicken; Sunset test garden coordinator Johanna Silver; production coordinator Margaret Sloan, who blogs for Team Bee; recipe editor Amy Machnak; and head gardener Rick LaFrentz, who leads Team Beer. Additional contributors to this book include Kathleen Norris Brenzel, Sunset’s garden editor; associate food editor Elaine Johnson; test kitchen coordinator Stephanie Dean; Kimberley Burch, imaging specialist; senior editor Rachel Levin; executive editor Christine Ryan; and Brianne McElhiney, editorial assistant.

From the Hardcover edition.

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