Sunday, June 24, 2007

Curds and Whey

I blame Barbara Kingsolver. I've been thoroughly enjoying Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I respect and applaud her family's decision to break away from the world of corporate food and eat as locally as possible. Really, I do. But part of me (the insecure and immature part I guess) was feeling kind of like a loser as I read, thinking wistfully about the cook and gardener I could be if I would just get my act together and knowing that I probably never will. But then came the chapter on cheese, specifically the 30-minute fresh mozzarella recipe. Really, she insists, normal people can make real cheese in their own kitchens. Well, I was in.

I especially wanted to make cheese with The Spouse this weekend. It might seem like an odd activity for an anniversary but we are, after all, the couple who had to visit both the Tillamook Cheese Factory and the Blue Heron French Cheese Company on our honeymoon. We like our cheese.

I started out simply by heating a gallon of organic milk on the stove. My thermometer isn't terribly accurate at the lower end, so I had to guess about the proper time to add the citric acid. At this point it was more or less like making paneer, which I have done many times. Adding the rennet seems to change the consistency of the curds and make them stick together with more tenacity than paneer. Once the curds formed I scooped them out with a slotted spoon and mashed things around to press out as much of the watery whey as possible. Eventually the mass of curds came together into something resembling either a cauliflower or a brain, depending on your point of view.

The mass of curds is then heated in the microwave for a minute or so and kneaded. This is the fun part as the texture begins to change dramatically. Once it cools, you repeat the heating/kneading until most of the moisture is out of the cheese.
You can then form the cheese into whatever shape you like. I made about 12 2" balls of cheese. The flavor was incredibly delicate and buttery and the cheese squeaks just slightly when chewed which is a sensation I love.

It took a few phone calls to find vegetarian rennet locally but I figured if I was going to make my own cheese I might as well make it kosher as well. The citric acid also took a couple of calls but we were able to round up all the ingredients here in Portland. For those more patient folks wanting to do mail order, I'd take a look here as they seem to have a huge array of items for your cheesemaking needs.

This isn't particularly cost effective as there wasn't a whole lot to show for a gallon of milk, especially once The Dark Lord came through the kitchen and discovered the cheese. But I will certainly try this again, perhaps when I have a pile of fresh grape tomatoes. I can see rolling the fresh mozzarella into tiny balls, and tossing them with fresh basil, tomatoes, and a bit of olive oil for a variation on the Caprese salad. How lovely that would be in deep summer with home grown tomatoes and homemade cheese! I may not have a farm of many acres and I even fell behind in planting my vegetable beds this year, but I did manage to pop a few tomato plants in the ground last month, so that heavenly salad shouldn't be too far away.

Apologies for the photo quality. Given a choice between cheesemaking and documenting cheesemaking, well, the cheese won so I (or The Spouse) snapped what photos we could despite poor lighting.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Berry Stained Fingers

Yesterday we bought four flats of fresh strawberries which works out to 48 little green pint boxes. Half were Laura's and half were ours. We went out to Thompson Farms where the berries are grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. East Multnomah County was once covered in strawberry farms but the farms are shrinking or disappearing these days, so I was delighted to support a local family owned business with my berry dollars. The smell of the fruit in the back of the van as we drove home was positively intoxicating!

I wanted lots for the freezer as nothing tickles me more than to pull a bag of perfectly ripe local berries out of freezer for those mid-winter smoothies. Quite a few berries were quickly rinsed and spread in a single layer on a large baking tray covered in waxed paper (which keeps the berries from sticking to the bare metal). Each tray sat in the freezer for about an hour and a half, just long enough for the berries to firm up. Then I popped the frozen berries into 1 quart freezer bags and stored them away for winter.

Meanwhile, the jam berries were sitting, bathed in sugar, as we waited for them to soften and get juicy. Laura's favorite recipe looked astoundingly sweet to me, but I've had the jam many times and it's quite delicious so I wasn't worried. She brought along her steam canner, a marvelous contraption which was entirely new to me. It requires heating only a few pints of water rather than than the gallons and gallons needed to fill my old canning kettle so the water heats much faster, you can process numerous batches quickly and the kitchen doesn't get nearly as hot as with the big canner. I think I'll have to find one of my own.
We ended up with 18 half-pint jars of strawberry jam. At this point Laura left and I still had a full flat of berries. Continuing with the freezer routine, I also started poking around in Stocking Up looking for more ways to use my remaining berries. Since I still had some of my Mt Vernon rhubarb remaining, I decided to try the strawberry -rhubarb preserves. This is not always a flavor combination I love, mostly because the rhubarb is often overwhelmed by the berries, and that appealing tang is lost in overwhelming sweetness. One of the things I really appreciate about Stocking Up is that many of the recipes are written with a goal of reducing sugar so I figured their recipe wouldn't be overly sweet. Also, the recipe uses low-methoxyl pectin (I use the Pomona brand) which is great stuff. Regular pectin won't thicken your jams unless your mixture is at least 50% sugar. This stuff, made entirely from citrus peel, will thicken jams, jellies, and preserves regardless of sugar content. I made the entire batch--8 cups of fruit cooked down into 6 half-pints--using less than a cup of honey and no sugar at all.

The resulting preserve is tangy and tart and, as far as I'm concerned, perfectly delicious. I'm sure that some folks would find it way too astringent. Others might not like the way the preserves look in the jar. The finished product gets rather foamy and I need to do some research to find out why that is. So it's not exactly picture perfect but it is absolutely delicious. I had one jar that didn't seal in the water bath canner last night which meant I could dig right into it this morning. I toasted some thick slices of Pugliese bread, spread them with a thin layer of cream cheese and then topped them with a thick dollop of freshly made strawberry-rhubarb preserves....heaven!
If you feel like making a batch of your own strawberry rhubarb preserves, the recipe is here.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Rhubarb Coffee Cake

We always had rhubarb growing up. My dad had a few plants around and we always enjoyed his rhubarb pies as well as stewed rhubarb over anything: ice cream, shortcake, or (my favorite) tapioca pudding. I've always loved the jewel-like color and the tangy flavor of rhubarb despite the fact that for so many people it's either unknown or disliked intensely. I was delighted to find that none other than Nigella Lawson is a huge rhubarb fan and I took it as a good omen that our first home of our own included a vigorous rhubarb plant.
Not only did we snap up (and immediately eat) over a pound of the most delicious cherries at a Mt Vernon farm stand the other day, but I also spied a bunch of rhubarb going for a very reasonable price. Since our own rhubarb was mostly harvested weeks ago, I was happy to find more of the ruby stalks looking fresh and healthy and I brought home a few pounds with no particular plan.
Rhubarb was not immediately on my mind this morning as I got up early to prepare for making strawberry jam with my dear friend Laura (more on that later). Thinking that we needed something tasty to fortify ourselves before heading off to the wilds of south Gresham to buy our berries, I started dreaming of something along the lines of a rhubarb coffee cake. I did some online research and assembled something using bits and pieces of a number of different recipes. The result was quite tasty: hearty, tangy, and ever so pretty in a homely kind of way. If you'd like to give it a try, the recipe is here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Cherry Almond Chocolate Biscotti

This will be a quick post as we're getting ready to leave town to go visit my aunt in Anacortes, Washington tomorrow.

Ever since I was tiny, going to visit my aunt was thrilling. When I was young she lived in a number of fascinating places including a tiny cottage on Puget Sound and an apartment on Capitol Hill in Seattle which seemed wildly exciting to me at the time. She always treated me differently than other adults--she really paid attention in a way I've since learned that those who are parents can't always manage. She took me out for wonderful meals in exotic restaurants, some of which I remember to this day. She used to keep me well supplied with chocolate orange Frangos which, sadly, have become impossible to find. Every year we now eagerly look forward to her generous holiday gift, a tin of delicious Cougar Gold cheese.

I have all these wonderful food memories associated with my aunt so it pleases me to no end that she seems to be fond of my biscotti. I sent them up once and heard many times about how she loved them so I've come to associate them with her. I've made these a number of different ways including a version that honors those beloved Frangos using candied orange peel. Those are heavenly. Today I made the cherry almond version and they came out as tasty as ever. You'll find my recipe here and I hope you'll give them a try as homemade biscotti are nothing like the stale, tasteless specimens one finds in coffee shops. These are crumbly and light with a rich chocolate flavor and a lovely bit of crunch from the toasted almonds.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Strawberries for MonkeyBoy!

My younger son, known in bloglandia as MonkeyBoy, has always been a fiend for strawberries. He can down a few boxes of them in an hour's time. As a tot he used to toddle through tall grass out to our strawberry patch, often eating them slightly green in his enthusiasm. I don't want to publicly embarrass him, but I feel I can at least say that his exit from the diaper-wearing community was achieved primarily through the generous use of strawberries as a bribe. He's had strawberry shortcake for his June birthday more than once. His first ice cream was, of course, strawberry.
He was born a few days shy of 12 years ago during a brief stint when we lived far from Portland. Shortly thereafter my parents came to visit bringing the perfect gift for a Portlander-in-exile, sweltering in the California heat: an ice cream maker. We had to return to Portland before making truly good strawberry ice cream with local Oregon berries. There's no point in trying with the early berries they ship up from California. Those woody, pale monstrosities have no flavor whatsoever so we happily wait for the real thing: local berries picked the day of purchase, red all the way through, dead ripe, enchantingly fragrant and, well, heaven.

MonkeyBoy headed off with friends for a camping/rock climbing extravaganza this morning. He won't be returning until late on his birthday and, due to my work schedule, I may not even see him until quite late that day. But I wanted him to start his birthday with a special treat so I ran down to the Lents International Farmers Market early this morning to pick up some berries to send along. Nice little market, by the way, so those of you in SEPDX should drop by.

They couldn't take all the berries along so we kept two boxes behind. Having recently checked The Perfect Scoop out of the library, I thought some ice cream might be just the way to use some of the remaining berries. The author lists a number of possibilities for frozen delights using strawberries including a strawberry-rhubarb sorbet which sounds wonderful, but it was the strawberry-sour cream ice cream which won out today. I had all the ingredients on hand and I guess maybe I'm still pining for those blintzes because that's what the combo made me think of.
I hauled out the trusty old Donvier and whipped up a batch of heavenly pink ice cream in almost no time. Had I followed the recipe exactly, it would have taken a couple of hours with chilling time but the rushed version was just fine. The recipe is here. The Perfect Scoop contains page after page of splendid looking possibilities, so I'm sure I'll be writing about it again.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Fruity Bread Pudding

True to tradition, Parade Day dawned rainy and gloomy. We're not parade goers anyway, but while I lay in bed thinking of all the damp souls waiting for the fun to begin, I also started thinking about breakfast. A cool, early summer breakfast is a grand opportunity as far as I'm concerned. I can't think of how many recipes I've seen which look delicious but involve baking summer fruit. Baking. Summer. Fruit. You get the problem, right? Who wants to bake anything when it's hot?

One thing I love is a good bread pudding. We make them all the time, often using leftover challah. Mostly they are dense, eggy things, either a savory variety made with cheese or a rich chocolate variety. Today I wanted something lighter where the flavor of recently purchased blueberries and cherries would shine.

I started with this recipe, the first to pop up after I googled "blueberry bread pudding". It was a good starting point, but looked too sweet and too bland so I fiddled around a bit and made enough changes that I think I can fairly call this recipe my own. I cut back on the sugar, added cherries along with the blueberries, used more bread, replaced water with orange juice,and upped the lemon juice and butter accordingly.I even had the opportunity to put my grandmother's pastry tips to use for pitting the cherries after picking up the tip while browsing through a Martha Stewart magazine. Once I found the right size, it worked perfectly.

Served with a little half and half, this was delicious. If I were a bacon-eating person, I think that might be the perfect breakfast companion to this sweet bread pudding. I might try and remember to whip up some veggie sausage next time I serve this in the morning. But it would also be a delightful dessert along with freshly whipped cream. Do give it a try.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Lasagna With A Twist

Well I confess, I haven't been doing a whole lot of cooking. I've had some truly delicious meals in the last few weeks, especially here and here, but they weren't made by yours truly. I seem to be off my food again and not terribly interested in putting together delicious healthy meals in and around the growing chaos. But The Spouse has been making plaintive, mournful comments about my lack of output in the kitchen and nothing makes me feel guilty like the spousal whine. And when he complains that he has nothing to take for lunch, what he really means is that there's no delicious, cheesy, savory pasta to enjoy midday. Which, when you get right down to it, means there's no lasagna.

It's been uncommonly, horribly, global warmingly hot the last few weeks. Portland is beginning to feel like a city in a different latitude and I haven't adjusted. Ninety degrees before the end of May is just ridiculous as far as I'm concerned. Like the polar bears at out zoo, I just get lethargic when it's hot and could hardly care less about cooking or food in general. Firing up the oven for a pan of lasagna has had no appeal whatsoever lately.

So when today dawned gloomy and cool, I was in heaven. I ran around the house doing useful, productive things like scrubbing counters and tidying the laundry room. And thinking about cooking something solid and hearty and easily divided into lunchtime portions for my beloved.

I can only take so much of a big cheesy dish. While I love homemade macaroni and cheese, I really love a spicy kick-in-the-pants macaroni and cheese. Lasagna can work the same way. I found this recipe years ago in Vegetarian Planet, a great cookbook full of lively, fusion recipes influenced by nearly any cuisine you can think of. At first I rolled my eyes at the thought of "Mexican" lasagna. But reading the recipe I realized that the smoky chipotles in the sauce could make magic. And they do.

You can control the heat of the dish by leaving the chipotles in the sauce or fishing them out, as you prefer. The corn adds a surprising bit of texture and the flavors come together beautifully in this untraditional dish. Like most lasagnas, it reheats, travels, and freezes well, making it a versatile addition to your repertoire. Even if it does sound weird. The recipe is here. Let me know what you think!