Thursday, May 14, 2009

Life With Bees

One day at work recently, a coworker told me that one of our custodial staff members keeps bees. Mehmed was telling the people who work in our offices about his "second job," because he was pitching his honey.

He and I struck up a conversation about it the next day and he explained that he was increasing his hives this season. He said that by the end of the season, he would have 100 hives. And those hives would produce about 5 tons of honey. I don't know much about bees or keeping hives, so I'll have to trust his figures on the amount they can produce.

After hearing his projections, I was curious to know where he lived. I wondered where can you keep that many bees? He described where he lived (not too far from my office or my apartment) and I immediately found myself asking, "Can I come see your bees?" I don't think I could've stopped myself if I wanted to.

I have always loved bees, and always felt that they were good luck. I remember once as a child finding a bee dying in the gutter next to my house. It had stung something and would suffer the inevitable consequences for that. But it upset me so much that day. I didn't know if it was in pain. I went inside and found one of my small prized possessions, a white cardboard jewelry box with flat cotton padding in it. I made a little bed for the bee, while probably poking at it a little too much, until it died. I remember crying over that bee and eventually burying him in the box in the yard.

Above: hives all riled up after Mehmed pulled 2 combs per box to start new hives.

Above: honey combs, full and new.

Now, as an adult and a lover of all things food related, I see the real value and luck of having bees around. They are essential to the way of food life as we know it. And since they've been dying out from various problems at an increasing rate in the last decade, a part of me longs to answer the call to raise my own bees in my own yard. Granted, I may end up buying a condo or townhouse and have no place to keep bees, but I get absurdly lucky and end up with a single family home, Mehmed has already promised he would teach me how to keep them.

Above: a tree that died last year cut into 3 sections, with bees living in them.

Mehmed and his wife Fatima are refugees from Bosnia, fleeing years ago during a time of war. They ran from Bosnia directly to Boulder with their three children and have never left. Mehmed previously was a mason, and has various stonework projects around his home as proof. Included in these is the brick fireplace, or as I see it, a brick oven. It is built into a small building next to his garage, the chimney poking out of the roof. Fatima has baked bread and other various goods in the oven, while Mehmed uses the building to smoke meats.

As you walk into his yard, we saw stacks of hive boxes. Mostly they were unoccupied but it didn't stop bees from swinging by, confused, wondering if this is where they should come and drop their loads of nectar. On opposite sides of his yard, there are garden plots holding a plethora of green onion and spinach plants. When we eventually headed home for the day, Mehmed sent me and my neighbor home with bags stuffed full to the point of stiffness with spinach and green onions.
Above: the scene you see when you step into their yard, stacks of hives, ready to be occupied.

After we spent quite a bit of time discussing the bees, including how to start new hives, watering systems (bees will drown in pool type arrangements), frames & combs, and extractors, we sat down with cool beverages and just chatted. We cut into a piece of smoked beef (that I had so forwardly asked Mehmed to let us taste - I know it was rude to ask, but I couldn't stop myself!) and sat in the shade chewing the tough meat and feeding the yipping dogs at our ankles. Once, one of their short dogs managed to jump up and steal a piece of beef from my fingers, teeth scraping against my fingertips, before I even knew what happened. I guarded my meat much more carefully after that. The meat was smoky, tough and chewy and had enough fat content to leave a light layer in the mouth.

Above: chewy, tough, smoky beef.

Fatima came out and handed Mehmed something that looked like a stainless steel pepper mill, said a few words in Bosnian and went back inside the house. Mehmed started to grind the handle of the contraption and when asked, answered that it was a coffee grinder. He showed us how the coffee comes out as a fine powder in the resevoir at the bottom. He explained that they grind the coffee to the finest setting, size zero, because they do not filter the coffee. Fatima came back and retrieved the grinder and went off to make herself some coffee. Or so I thought.

In reality, Fatima was making us some coffee. When she came back out 15 minutes later, she had a tray with a small pot of coffee, a smaller pot of milk, Bosnian sugar cubes (which were white sugar but had a finer texture and less processed taste than American sugar cubes, along with a cruder shape), a set of small espresso style cups and saucers and honey, of course.

While we continued to enjoy the afternoon, discussions moved to family and children. My neighbor and I dutifully shared photos of our only children, which inspired Fatima to go inside and retrieve a photo of her three daughters (who are grown) from when they were children. She tried to find the words in English to express some particular sentiment and when she failed, waited for Mehmed to come back out of the house to help her. Finally, when he returned, she was able to tell us what she couldn't before. The photo of her children, when they were perhaps between the ages of 4 and 8, was the only photograph that they were able to save from being burned in a fire in Bosnia.

I knew that there was a larger story there, but we were on the verge of leaving after staying for 2 1/2 hours and I wasn't ready to push into their past that much (see, I have some boundaries). I can only guess what kind of heartache they must have left behind when they came to the United States.

As we left, I realized that it was the most pleasant and fun afternoon I'd spent in a long time. I went home and made fresh biscuits the next morning so my son and I could enjoy the honey in a way that would honor the freshness of it.

There is something about getting a fresh product made in your local area that makes it inherantly better. I savor it, knowing that it was labored over by a neighbor, produced with care and affection. Every time I eat this honey, I see Mehmed, enjoying the companionship and work of caring for the bees in his yard. And it is sweeter with the memory.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pizza Margherita

From Gourmet magazine's January 2009 issue.

This pizza was full of simple flavors that got better the next day. If I could find some San Marzano tomatoes, I think I'll try those next time.

Pizza Margherita

yield: Makes 6 servings

active time: 35 min

total time: 1 3/4 hr (includes rising time)

The secret to a great pizza Margherita is to use the best ingredients you can find—and to approach them with restraint.


For dough:
  • 1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoon)
  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
  • 3/4 cup warm water, divided
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil

For topping:
  • 1 (14-to 15-ounces) can whole tomatoes in juice
  • 2 large garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 basil leaves plus more for sprinkling
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • Equipment: a pizza stone

Make dough:

Stir together yeast, 1 tablespoon flour, and 1/4 cup warm water in a large bowl and let stand until surface appears creamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn’t appear creamy, discard and start over with new yeast.)

Add 1 1/4 cups flour, remaining 1/2 cup water, salt, and oil and stir until smooth. Stir in enough flour (1/4 to 1/3 cup) for dough to begin to pull away from side of bowl. (Dough will be slightly wet.)

Knead on a floured surface, lightly reflouring when dough becomes too sticky, until smooth, soft, and elastic, about 8 minutes. Form into a ball, put in a bowl, and dust with flour. Cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel (not terry cloth) and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours.

Make tomato sauce while dough rises:
Pulse tomatoes with juice in a blender briefly to make a chunky purée.

Cook garlic in oil in a small heavy saucepan over medium-low heat until fragrant and pale golden, about 2 minutes. Add tomato purée, basil, sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon salt and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced to about 3/4 cup, about 40 minutes. Season with salt and cool.

Heat pizza stone while dough rises:
At least 45 minutes before baking pizza, put stone on oven rack in lower third of electric oven (or on floor of gas oven) and preheat oven to 500°F.

Shape dough:
Do not punch down. Dust dough with flour, then transfer to a parchment-lined pizza peel or large baking sheet. Pat out dough evenly with your fingers and stretch into a 14-inch round, reflouring fingers if necessary.

Assemble pizza:
Spread sauce over dough, leaving a 1-inch border (there may be some sauce left over). Arrange cheese on top, leaving a 2- to 3-inch border.

Slide pizza on parchment onto pizza stone. Bake until dough is crisp and browned and cheese is golden and bubbling in spots, 13 to 16 minutes. Using peel or baking sheet, transfer pizza to a cutting board. Cool 5 minutes. Sprinkle with some basil leaves before slicing.

Cooks' notes:

•Dough can be allowed to rise slowly in the refrigerator (instead of in a warm place) for 1 day. Bring to room temperature before shaping.

•Tomato sauce can be made 5 days ahead and chilled.