Sunday, October 31, 2010

Say Cheeeese!

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to head out to a farm a few miles outside Portland to attend a cheese making class. After my not quite so successful attempt to make mozzarella (see Blessed are the Cheesemakers, Oct. 10), I figured I could use a little help in this area.

The last time I tried to make cheese, I had gotten a recipe off the internet for "30-Minute Mozzarella" which, if you recall, took me a good 3-4 hours to make. This class was on how to make regular mozzarella which seems to take just about the same amount of time. The main difference between them, ingredient wise, is that the longer recipe does not call for citric acid. It's just milk and rennet. And, in the end, it came out much better!

My friend Emily decided to come with me and so, bright and early on a rainy Saturday morning with lattes in hand, we drove to the farm, located just south of Oregon City near the town of Colton. As we neared the farm, we were greeted by a couple of cows lazing under the pine trees, along with chickens, turkeys and ducks kept in pens and, somewhere behind the house, we could hear the squealing of pigs. Entering the house, we found ourselves in a large living/dining area. On one side of the room, an older woman sat at an old fashioned spinning wheel, hand spinning spools of wool. We were welcomed by our hostess, Stacie, and ushered into the large kitchen where the rest of the group waited. 

On the stove were two pots of raw cow's milk (taken from Jersey cows, it had a slightly higher fat content than average), each containing approximately two gallons. The first one already had the rennet added - veal rennet, to be exact - and was nearly done setting. The second pot was only milk and would have vegetable rennet added later. This pot was still in the first step, which is to heat the milk to 90° and let it sit for 30 minutes. 

The next step is to add rennet. We were using liquid rennet in the class, the rennet I have at home is in tablet form which requires crushing. The rennet should always be diluted at a ratio of 1 t rennet to 1 c water. (Always take care that the water you use is non-chlorinated! Chlorine will kill the bacteria that are needed to make the cheese.) In this case we had about two gallons of milk and were adding 1/2 t of rennet in a 1/2 c of water. Emily volunteered to do this step. Slowly pouring in the rennet with her left hand, she moved a wooden spoon in an up and down motion around the pot. This is one of the places where I messed up my first batch. DO NOT STIR THE MILK!  Stirring the milk is what kept my curds from setting right the first time. It is also important to use a wooden spoon. Never use stainless steel as it will also inhibit bacterial growth.

Once the rennet has been added, allow the milk to sit for an hour. By this time, the first pot had sat for an hour and finished setting. It had the appearance of yogurt and jiggled when lightly shook. There was a very thin film of whey over the top. Using a long knife, we cut the curd horizontally and vertically, making squares of about a half inch. Cutting the curd has an immediate effect and the whey begins to "bleed" out. Let the cheese sit for 20 minutes. 

After the cheese has sat for a bit, the curds will have continued to solidify as they separate from the whey. Gently stir the curds and reheat them until they are at 100°. As you stir, break apart any large chunks, the curds should be more or less uniform in size. Once heated, turn off the heat and let the cheese sit for 5 minutes, allowing the curds to sink. Pour off the whey and reserve for breadmaking or for making ricotta. Drain the curds well, using a large colander and place back in the pot. Run about 2-3" of 105° water in the sink and place the pot in the water. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes. By this time, more whey will have bled out of the curds. Drain off the whey and flip the cheese over in the pot, returning the pan to the water bath. Do this about five times, each time letting the cheese sit for 20 minutes and then draining and flipping the curds. Add hot water to the bath as necessary to keep the temperature near 105°. Eventually, the cheese should take on a shiny appearance. At this point, remove the curds from the pot and place on a cutting board. It is best to place a cookie sheet underneath to catch the whey that will continue to drip. Cut the curds into 8 wedges (or less if you are making a smaller batch) and allow the curds to rest for a few minutes.

While the curds are resting, it is time to prepare the hot and cold baths. For the hot bath, fill a pot with about 6 quarts of distilled non-chlorinated water and heat it to 170°. For the cold bath, dissolve 1/3 c of non-iodized sea salt in 2 quarts of ice water.

Take a wedge of cheese and immerse it into the hot bath for a minute or so until it softens. Gently massage and stretch the cheese, immersing it back into the hot water as necessary. It is wise to use rubber gloves for this step. Soaking the cheese in the hot water will not harm the cheese but over working it will. Be careful not to squeeze it or pull it too hard, as this will cause the cheese to become tough and rubbery. This was another step that I did incorrectly the last time I made cheese and again with the first wad of cheese that I worked with in class. Eventually I got the touch down, gently kneading the mozzarella into balls about 2" in diameter. The cheese is done when it stretches without tearing and becomes shiny. As soon as it's done, submerge the cheese into the ice water. It is important to cool the cheese as quickly as possible.

Once cooled, the cheese can be stored in the salt water for several months, though it is important to remember that the cheese will become saltier the longer it sits in the brine. When storing the cheese, you may also wish to place it in olive oil (the oil will solidify when chilled but will be fine when returned to room temperature), or use fresh herbs to flavor the cheese while it sits in the brine.

In addition to making cheese, we also had the opportunity to make butter by hand, using an old hand-cranked butter churning jar. Emily did most of the work there, being the tenacious sort that she is! It took Emily about 30-40 minutes to churn the cream into butter. Stacie told us she never uses the jar, preferring the quicker method of placing the cream in the food processor for 30 seconds or so. After taking a turn at the hand cranking for less than 10 minutes, I can't say as I blame her! The finished butter would then be salted (or not) and placed in a sealed jar and stored for a while to allow the cultures to ferment. We tasted the fresh butter and, while it was good, it was very mild and lacked the sharp tang that good aged butter has.

My thanks to Stacie for sharing her knowledge and experience with us. All in all, it was a very profitable day and I learned enough to get myself well on the way to making my own cheese on a regular basis. While it is an admittedly long process, taking several hours, most of that time is spent waiting. It's an easy task when you have other things around the house to tend to while the cheese sits. The reward is worth every minute invested!

My next cheese adventure will be to learn how to make ricotta from the leftover whey. I'm also looking to experiment with other soft cheeses like cottage cheese and Neufchatel. Rest assured, gentle reader, I will keep you informed of my pilgrimage into this culinary holy land. Praise Cheeses!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Roasted Squash Soup

With a basement full of squash and an unexpected day off, I decided that today I would come up with a  new recipe. My squash selection is quite varied and includes a few varieties I've never tried before, as well as an unidentified variety from our backyard. We had a sizable harvest of what my wife and I began calling "mystery squash" this fall. We didn't plant it, rather it grew from seeds that had apparently gotten tossed into the compost pile and then redistributed in the garden. In early summer I started seeing squash plants popping up in several places that I hadn't planted them. One turned out the be an acorn squash plant. Another was "mystery squash." The fruits are green and oblong, looking and smelling from the outside much like a watermelon but maturing with a light, meaty flesh that is almost white in color and is very mild. Whatever it is it's delicious, which is a good thing because we have lots! We also had a generous harvest of acorn squash and had recently gotten several squash of various varieties through our food buying club. I settled in on a butternut, an acorn and a mystery squash to make soup out of, along with a bright orange-red gourd called a red kuri squash that I decided to halve and use as 2 serving bowls.

My original intention was to make a soup using a base of chicken stock, topping the finished soup with crumbled bacon. I had a change of plans, however, when I got a call from my friend Tracy who just got back from Alaska and whom I hadn't seen in several months. I invited her over and planned on an extra for dinner. The thing is, Tracy is vegetarian! I was not going to be able to use either the chicken stock or the bacon! I ran down to the freezer and got a quart of the vegetable broth I had made the other day. I also grabbed another acorn squash to provide myself with two more soup bowls.

To begin with, I cut the acorn, butternut and mystery squash into pieces, cleaning out the seeds and discarding them. I lightly sprinkled them with salt and baked them at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes, until the squash was soft and tender. I peeled the squash and scraped out all the meat I could, setting it aside. This step can actually be done ahead of time. You should have at least:
5-6 c cooked squash
If using squash bowls, prepare them now by cutting the squash in half from stem to base. Scrape out and discard insides. You might need to shave a bit off of the bottoms of each half to get them to sit straight. Pierce the flesh with a fork, salt lightly and sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake at 425 for about 40 minutes, or until the flesh is tender, while the soup is cooking. 
Using a large stock pot, cook over medium heat:
4 T unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 T chopped fresh sage
Saute the onions until they begin to soften, then add:
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
Cook until the garlic becomes fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in:
3 T flour
Combine flour well and cook for several minutes until flour begins to brown slightly. Add:
1 qt homemade vegetable broth
1 c white wine
1 c water
2 t kosher salt
1/2 t white pepper
Cook over medium-high heat until broth begins to simmer, then add squash meat. Stir well, cover and reduce heat to low. Continue cooking for another 20 minutes or so.
If you have an immersion blender, use it. Otherwise, place the soup a little at a time into a blender and puree it until it is smooth and creamy. Remember to use caution by covering the blender with a towel and holding the lid on while blending! Clean out any bits that might still be in the stock pot and return the soup to the pot. Over low heat, slowly stir in:
1-1/2 c evaporated milk or half-n-half
1/2 t ground nutmeg
Stir well, adjusting seasonings as necessary. Remove the squash halves from the oven and place each half into a bowl or on a rimmed plate. Fill the squash with soup and sprinkle the top with fresh ground nutmeg.

Delicious! The flavor was light and creamy, delicate enough so that the nutmeg just came through. A fabulous vegetarian meal that was surprisingly easy to make, which is good because I will certainly be making this soup again!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lengua del Diablo

"So what are you doing tonight?"
"Making dinner."
"Really?" Uta sounded interested. "What are you making?"

That's how my conversation with good friend and regular dinner guest Uta went when she called on the phone tonight. I managed to talk her into coming over anyway, despite her misgivings about the main course. "Just come and try it." I said and now she was on her way.

I have been experimenting with a lot of things lately that I've never challenged myself to cook before. Recently, my wife had obtained a big 3 lb. beef tongue through the food club. We both like lengua, as it is called in Spanish, and eat it fairly regularly at our favorite taquería. It has a wonderful flavor and the texture is quite unique - lean and meaty but without the grain that a roast would have. It's quite delicious and once I tried it and got over the "Ew! It's tongue!" reaction, I've been a fan. Never, though, have I tried to cook it, not really knowing what to do with it. Now I had this big hunk of meat in the refrigerator and it was time to have some fun!

The first thing I did was a little research on the internet. Step one, I found, was going to involve cooking and then peeling the thick skin from the tongue. After that it could be prepared in a myriad of ways and could even be eaten cold with a dipping sauce! I decided to wait to try the cold version, choosing instead to make a warm tomato based dish, as we also had a couple of pounds of tomatoes that were going to go bad if I didn't use them. With plenty of peppers thrown in, this was going to be a sort of tongue chili. I used pasillas and jalapenos but you could use any whole pepper you wanted to. In addition, this recipe could go verde by simply replacing the tomatoes with tomatillos.

I removed the tongue from its package and washed it real well. One source I found on the internet said to soak the tongue in cold water for a couple hours to remove excess salt. As I had gotten my meat from a private, free-range producer in the area called Thundering Hooves, I decided to skip this step and, as it turned out, was okay in doing so. I might have soaked it, however, had I gotten the tongue from the grocery store. I placed in a large pot:
1 beef tongue, approx. 3 lb 
1 medium onion, quartered
I added enough water to cover the tongue by a couple of inches and brought it to a simmer. I covered the pot and simmered the meat for 3 hours (one hour per pound, roughly). It is important here to cook the meat at the lowest possible heat setting while still maintaining a gentle simmer. Do not boil the meat!
While the tongue was simmering, I prepared the tomatoes and peppers. First, I placed on a cookie sheet:
3 whole pasilla peppers
3-4 whole jalapeno peppers
I broiled the peppers with the rack on the highest setting until their skins turned black, turning the peppers as needed. I usually place the peppers in either a brown paper bag or a large bowl covered with plastic wrap for about 20 minutes. The skins should peel right off of the peppers at this point. I peeled and seeded the peppers and set them aside.
To peel and seed the tomatoes, I brought about 2 quarts of water to a boil. With a sharp knife, I sliced a small X in the bottom of each tomato. One by one, I boiled the tomatoes for 10 seconds and then, using a slotted spoon, fished them out and plunged them into a bowl of ice water. This made them easy to peel. I cut away any bad parts and trimmed off the stem ends. To de-seed them, I cut them in half and gently squeezed out the seeds. I then diced the tomatoes. I'm not sure how many tomatoes I had but I ended up with about
4 c tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
One could also use a couple of cans of diced tomatoes, making sure to drain them well. I set the tomatoes aside as well.
By this time, the tongue had finished cooking. I removed it from the water and discarded the broth. I let the tongue cool enough to where I could handle it, occasionally placing it in cold water to help. Do not let the tongue completely cool before peeling it as it will peel much easier when it's hot! Using kitchen shears, I sliced into the skin and peeled it off. The thickest portion reminded me of shark skin. I used a small knife to make sure I peeled off every bit. The meat underneath was tender and delicious, with a pot roast flavor. I sliced the meat into bite-sized pieces and set it aside.
In a large fry pan, I sauteed:
1 T bacon grease
1 medium onion, diced
After about 5 minutes, I added the tomatoes and peppers, along with:
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 T chopped fresh oregano
1 t cumin
1/2 t chili powder
the juice of one lime
salt and pepper to taste
I cooked the sauce for about 10 minutes, adjusting the seasonings as needed and then added in the meat. I covered the pan and simmered the lengua over low heat while I made a pot of white rice. When the rice was finished, I served it topped with the lengua and sprinkled with:
crumbled Cotija cheese
chopped fresh cilantro
And tortillas, of course! Corn would be great, though I used flour. You could also garnish it with sour cream, guacamole, etc.

Uta had arrived by this time and was now, very gingerly, trying her first bite of tongue. The verdict? "That's good! That's really good!" That's about all I got out of her before she had another mouthful. Chalk up another convert to the exotic!


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You Can't Beat a Beet!

As I mentioned in the last post, our bimonthly produce haul landed me a couple of pounds of golden beets. I've never pickled a beet before so I turned to Alton Brown and took a few tips from him, notably the idea of roasting the beets before canning them.

I had 2 bunches of beets, about 8 medium sized bulbs. I prepared 4 pint sized jars but it turned out I only needed 3. I started by heating the oven to 400 degrees. I lined a 9"x13" dish with foil and added the following:
about 8 medium beets 
a large onion, roughly chopped
2 sprigs of rosemary
about 2 T olive oil
I placed a piece of foil over the top and baked them for about an hour, until the beets began to soften slightly. I took them out and allowed the beets to cool until they could be handled. I then sliced them about 1/4" thick. While the beets were cooling, I mixed together in a small saucepan:
1 c red wine vinegar
1 c water
1/2 c sugar
2 t kosher salt
I brought this mixture to a boil, dissolving the salt and sugar. Meanwhile, I took each of the sterilized jars and filled them, layering the beets with:
1 med red onion, thinly sliced
I also threw a small sprig of rosemary into each jar. Once each of the jars was tightly filled (I had to press down on the beets a little to pack them in), I added enough of the vinegar mixture to cover the beets. I tightly sealed each of the jars and immersed each back into the boiling water and processed them for 10 minutes.

The pickling did not stop with beets. I spent the rest of the weekend pickling everything from our latest produce order that I could get my hands on! We had a couple of heads of cauliflower, bunches of rainbow carrots, purple bell peppers, banana peppers, onions, garlic and green beans. With these I added pickling spices in different combinations - coriander seeds, brown and yellow mustard seeds, dill weed, cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. I ended up with about 8 quarts of pickled veggies!

Next on my hit list are tomatoes. It's been such a bad year in the northwest for tomatoes, however, that I'm not sure if we'll be doing too many of those. I'd also like to try pickling eggs, which I may do first if I can't get my mitts on the tomatoes! We shall see...!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Kahlua Flua

It's a busy weekend on the food front, having just gotten in another big produce order. This time around we went heavy on the pickling items - cauliflower, purple peppers, banana peppers, beans, rainbow carrots, etc. Not to mention that I plan on making both vegetable broth and chicken stock! I figured I would start with the vegetable broth, if for no other reason that to get some of this stuff out of my way!

I went heavy on the carrots and threw in a bunch of broccoli stalks and a yam I had. After I drained the broth, I added white wine and sweet vermouth and then reduced it to 2 quarts. Jarred and away and one chore down!

My next task was a much needed trip to the store for supplies, namely more jars, before continuing. Next on my list were the lovely golden beets we had. I planned on using a recipe I swiped from Alton Brown that calls for roasting the beets first, then canning them. I cleaned the beets and got them into the oven and decided to take advantage of the "down time" to make homemade kahlua.

About a week ago, I got a hold of a supply of vanilla beans and have been experimenting with them. I'm in no hurry to use them, they last quite a while if stored in a cool dark place. I found a few different kahlua recipes looking around online and put one together to try. We'll see how it turns out. Here's what I did:

In a stock pot, I put
8 c very strong black coffee
8 c sugar
I brought them to a simmer until the sugar was dissolved. I then added
4 vanilla beans, split lengthwise
a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka
I brought this to a simmer and continued to cook it over low-medium heat for an hour or two. About 15 minutes before finishing, I fished out the vanilla beans and scraped them out, adding the seed paste to the kahlua and discarding the empty pods. I cooked the mixture a little longer, stirring frequently to mix in the vanilla real well and then bottled the kahlua. I put it all in a gallon sized jar but you'll probably want to bottle it in several small bottles.

The beets are done. More to write later. Cheers!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blessed are the Cheesemakers!

I've been meaning to make some cheese. The thing is, I've never made it before so where do I begin? That question was answered for me by someone we know that has livestock, both cows and goats,  who gave us a half gallon of raw cow's milk. Now I had no excuse - it was time to make cheese.

I thought I would begin with mozzarella. I've heard it's quick and easy to make. I went online and found dozens of websites with instructions on how to make fresh mozzarella. I picked the one that seemed simplest. I drove down to the nearest New Season's Market and purchased a box of rennet tablets and a few ounces of citric acid powder for less than $5. The recipe I had chosen to follow was for 1 gallon of milk but, since I only had the half gallon of milk, I halved all the ingredients. The recipe called for using un-chlorinated water. I boiled a cup of water and set it aside to cool. When it was cool, I took a quarter of one of the rennet tablets - the recipe called for 1/2 a tablet - and crushed it with a spoon. This I dissolved in a couple of tablespoons of the boiled water. 

I poured the milk in a saucepan and set the heat to medium. Then, per the recipe, I stirred in 3/4 teaspoon citric acid - again, half of the original. I attached a thermometer to the pan and when the temperature reached 88 degrees (F) I added the rennet. I continued to cook the milk, stirring occasionally until the temperature reached 105 degrees and then shut off the heat. I covered the pan and let it sit. 

The recipe I was following said to let it sit for 20 minutes but I let it sit for about 90 minutes. Nothing was happening! A couple of very tiny curds but that was all! The temperature was still about 97 degrees so I stirred in more rennet - another quarter tablet dissolved in water. I reheated the milk to 105 degrees and removed it from the heat again. This time there was a noticeable difference after 90 minutes, the milk firming up to the consistency of yogurt or sour cream. The recipe, however, had said that there would be an obvious separation of curds and whey. Eventually there was but the curds were much softer than I had anticipated.

Using a slotted spoon, I carefully removed the curds from the pan and placed them into a bowl lined with cheesecloth. Taking the cloth by the ends, I lifted it up and tied the ends together. Then I gently squeezed the curds, and kept squeezing until most of the whey had come out. I then placed the cheese in a small glass dish and microwaved it on high for about 30 seconds. This softened the cheese up enough to where I could knead it and stretch it. I sampled a piece and found it to be rather bland. That's when I realized that I had put no salt in it! I sprinkled a little kosher salt in my hand and worked it into the cheese. I then reheated it in the microwave and worked it and stretched it some more.

This is what I ended up with from a half gallon of milk.

Not too much, I admit, but it was fun to make! Next time I make cheese, I will make a bigger batch. If you're going to make the mess, you might as well make lots, right? I'm going to continue to experiment with the easier stuff for a while - cream cheese, ricotta, cottage cheese, and of course more mozzarella! Watch for future updates!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Great Sauerkraut Experiment (Part 2)

It's been one week since I started the sauerkraut. Immediately after the last post I realized that the pot lid I was using to weight down the cabbage would not in fact work because it was ringed with metal. I replaced it with a smaller version of the original plate and used a plastic mayonnaise jar filled with water and sealed tight as a weight to hold the plate down.

This has been working wonderfully! I checked in on the kraut a couple of times during the week, making sure it was still covered in liquid. Today, I gave it a taste. It is seasoned perfectly and is beginning to pickle, though the brine is still very mild. As the weeks go by, it's going to develop a very nice flavor. I can't wait!

All natural brine - no liquid has been added to this cabbage.
I pressed the sauerkraut back down as tightly as I could, making sure that all of the cabbage was covered. Placing the plate and weight back on caused the brine level to rise even more, well covering the sauerkraut. I will check it again in a week or so. The whole process should take anywhere from 5-10 weeks, after which I will pack the sauerkraut in jars for storage.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Gentle Art of Ratio Cooking

Often as I have watched other more experienced cooks ply their trade, I have marveled at their freedom from using recipes, how they just seem to know how much of what to mix together to make a delicious moist cake or a creamy custard. Of course, experience has much to do with this skill but just as important is the understanding of cooking ratios - what they are and how to use them. This is where Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking comes to save the day!

This might just be the most important book about cooking that I have ever read. Sure, there are some fun and interesting recipe ideas within its pages but the point of the book is to get you away from thinking in recipes and to get you to see why the recipes work the way they do. If you know, for example, that a basic cookie dough is 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, and 3 parts flour, you can use this 1:2:3 ratio to make just about any cookie your imagination can come up with! When you understand that muffins are 2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, and 1 part butter, you will have hundreds of recipes at your fingertips and will have the freedom to improvise with whatever flavor combinations you might have on hand at the moment. That, I believe, is what this book is really all about - culinary freedom. As Alton Brown put it, "...having a ratio in hand is like having a secret decoder ring that frees you from the tyranny of recipes." So many cooks are slaves to the recipe to the extent that when they are forced to forgo a pre-written recipe, they are lost and their cooking suffers. Knowing what works and why it works is a big part of elevating your cooking from being just food to being art.

One of the best things about reading this book was that fact that I constantly found myself stopping and pondering the possibilities of the ratios Ruhlman discusses. I had never thought of using a Pâte à Choux (cream puff dough) as a base for dumplings in chicken stew but I can't wait to try! His explanation of the difference between a roux and a beurre manié has made me rethink the way I was making gravy, a basic sauce that I thought I had completely mastered.

The approach discussed in this wonderful book is so basic and yet is the foundation for literally everything else that happens in the kitchen. These are, as the title of the book claims, simple codes. With practice and technique, you will be whipping up handmade seafood sausages, fresh wild mushroom raviolis, and homemade butterscotch without ever cracking open a single cookbook. And that my friends is what the true Art of Cooking is really all about!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Savory Turkey Pot Pies

I love leftover turkey. It's a good thing too because we usually have some. Kat and I have access to wonderful free range turkeys from the Diestel Family Turkey Ranch. They are fabulous and relatively inexpensive when compared to other meats. Turkey is versatile and allows for creativity. There are several ways to go about cooking it and once it's roasted, fried or smoked there is no end to the variety of dishes you can create! One of my favorites is the pot pie.

The concept is as basic a recipe as you can have. Meat, vegetables, gravy, pie crust. Very simple and yet if any of those items fails, the whole pie fails. I use savory in the gravy, a wholly forgotten herb in the modern kitchen. It's great with poultry so I usually have some on hand. Lacking savory, sage with do nicely as well.

A great pot pie starts with a great crust. I make an herbed butter crust that bakes up fluffy and crispy. Adding dried sage to the crust not only gives it wonderful flavor, but a delightful smell as it is about to be eaten!

You have the choice of either baking individual single serving pies, great for freezing, or one large pie. You will have enough crust for either. Personally, I prefer the single serving pies. I have a set of Corningware ramekins that are about 4" across and 2" deep, perfect for pot pies! If you are using dishes of this size, keep in mind that this recipe makes 4 pies. If making a large pie, just use a standard 9" pie dish.

The crust will need to refrigerate for at least an hour so I start there. In a food processor, pulse together;
1¼ c all purpose flour
2 t dried sage
½ t salt
Add to the flour mixture;
1 stick butter, cubed and frozen for at least 15 minutes
Pulse about 10 times, until flour looks crumbly. In small bowl, whisk together;
1/3 c ice water (reserving another 1-2 T on the side)
1½ T sour cream or plain yogurt
Add half of liquid mixture to flour and pulse until combined before adding the rest of the liquid. Pinch batter – if it sticks together, it’s done. If not, add a tablespoon of ice water and pulse briefly. When dough is crumbly but moist enough to stick together when pinched, turn out onto a piece of plastic wrap. Form into 4” disc and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, up to 2 days. Allow to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling out.
When you are ready, preheat your oven to 375. In small saucepan, prepare roux with;
3 T butter
3 T all purpose flour
Set aside. In large skillet, combine and sauté;
1 T butter
½ c chopped onion
½ c sliced carrot
1 c diced potato
Cook over med heat until veggies begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add;
2 c chopped cooked chicken or turkey
1½ c chicken broth
¼ c dry white wine or vermouth
½ c frozen peas
2 T chopped fresh parsley
2 t dried savory
1 clove garlic, minced
½ t lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste
Cook until heated through, then add enough roux to thicken along with;
½ c milk
2 T grated parmesan cheese
When gravy thickens, pour into your pie dish(es). If making individual pies, cut dough into appropriate number of pieces. Roll out crust and lay over top of dish(es), cutting 2 or 3 slits and pressing down the edges with a fork. Brush top of pie with;
1 egg, beaten
Bake for 35-40 minutes, until top is golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with a nice side salad and you'll have 4 very happy tummies afterward!

Pot pies are fun to play with as almost anything can go in them. Add mushrooms, broccoli, pork or beef, beans, the list goes on. Experiment and let me know what you come up with. I'm always eager for new ideas!


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cheesy Broccoli Goodness!

It was a long day of work for both Kat and I and neither of us felt like investing too much time in the kitchen this evening. We needed something quick and easy for dinner tonight.

Kat called me on her way home and reminded me that we had several small crowns of broccoli in the refrigerator from our recent produce haul and requested that I make a pot of Broccoli Cheese Soup. I was all over that idea like stink on garlic!

The thing is, I’ve never made Broccoli Cheese Soup before so this was going to be something new. I figured it couldn’t be too hard and I had everything I needed right in the refrigerator. To add creaminess, I could have used cream or half-and-half but chose to use evaporated whole milk instead. Using chicken stock and wine are key to the rich flavor, though vegetable broth could be used instead of chicken stock, if that’s what you prefer.

The following recipe is small, the two of us had a hearty dinner and had a small serving left over. Start by making a roux with:
3 T butter
3 T flour
Combine and cook over medium heat until the roux begins to take on a nutty scent. Add to this:
1/2 c finely chopped onion
a pinch of salt
Stir the onions into the roux and cook for about 5 minutes until the onions begin to soften. Add:
3 c chicken stock
Blend well, thoroughly combining the flour into the stock. When the soup begins to simmer, stir in:
about 2 c chopped broccoli florets
1/2 c white wine
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t black pepper
salt to taste
Allow the soup to simmer until the broccoli is “al dente.” Slowly stir in:
3/4 c evaporated milk
Reduce heat to low and, a little at a time, stir in:
2-1/2 – 3 c shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 c shredded parmesan cheese
a pinch of ground nutmeg (optional)
Stir until the cheese is melted and serve.

Simple and fast, the whole meal took about 30 minutes to prepare. And best of all, Kat raved about it and made me promise to make it again. That’s a promise I plan on keeping - often!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Great Sauerkraut Experiment (Part 1)

Sauerkraut. One of the easiest dishes to make and yet, like so many easy dishes, one I have never attempted. Today, I'm changing all that. My darling wife, in an effort to encourage the creation of said sauerkraut, purchased 2 very large heads of cabbage, each over a foot across. I designated Saturday to be Sauerkraut Day.

The first thing I needed to do was to procure a food grade plastic bucket. My plan was to go purchase one at the store but Kat, ever frugal, managed to find a couple for free by calling around bakeries and donut places. I got 2 five gallon buckets from Voodoo Doughnut, giving my sauerkraut a world-famous edge right from the get-go! I went out this morning, brought the buckets home and washed them real good. (After all, the last thing I want is frosting flavored sauerkraut - though it wouldn't surprise me in the least if Voodoo came up with a sauerkraut flavored doughnut! But I digress...)

Once I had my buckets nice and clean, I began preparing my vegetables. My original intention was to do two separate buckets, flavoring each differently. I found, however, that this was not going to work and opted to put it all in one bucket. The problem I had was that once I got the veggies in the bucket, the plates I had planned on using to hold the cabbage down wouldn't fit! The only thing in my kitchen I could find was an old pot lid but there was only one. I will leave the flavor experimenting for later.

I gathered my vegetables together and cleaned them well. I sliced and diced a little at a time, putting a layer in the bucket then covering it with a tablespoon or two of sea salt. I continued to pack in layer after layer, pressing each down as hard as I could and covering each with a sprinkle of salt. Here's what I put in:

2 huge heads of cabbage, quartered, cored and sliced thin
3 good sized carrots, shredded
3 large white onions, quartered and sliced
2 heads of garlic, cloves removed, peeled and chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped fine
approx. 3-4 T caraway seeds
approx. 1 T celery seeds

I mixed all these ingredients together real well and pressed them down as hard as I could. I took the pot lid that fit inside the bucket (now half full) and covered the cabbage, making sure that the lid covered all of the cabbage. I let it sit for an hour or so and then checked in on it. The salt had already done a great job of extracting the water and juices from the vegetables and when I pressed down, the liquid covered the top of the lid. This is a very good sign as this is the liquid that the sauerkraut will ferment in. If for some reason the salt had not pulled enough liquid out of the veggies by the time they had sat for a day, I would have added enough salt water to cover the cabbage. With this current batch, however, this step will be unnecessary. With everything in order, I sealed up the bucket and let it sit.

Tomorrow I will check on the cabbage and, if all is well, I will move the bucket to the basement. Placing it in a cooler location will mean that it will take longer to ferment but I'm in no hurry. It should take at least a couple of months to completely ferment, though it could sit longer. If I were to ferment it in a warmer location, it could be done in as little as 4-5 weeks. I will check on it every couple of days or so and will be writing more as the process goes along.

Making Basic Chicken Stock

Frequently, my recipes will call for using chicken stock. I used to purchase this at the grocery store but over the past couple of years I’ve been making it exclusively from scratch at home. It’s remarkably easy and much better tasting than anything you will ever find on a grocer’s shelf. It develops the flavor of every dish you add it to, without fail. Make rice with a bit of stock instead of just water and you bring it to a whole new level. Do the same with pasta and you add a delightful twist to an ingredient that most people take completely for granted.

Kat and I eat a lot of poultry. We usually have a turkey or two in the freezer, sometimes a few chickens as well. As a result, I have plenty of access to chicken carcasses and that’s all I need to get a good start. Onions and carrots are a necessity, and I will often use celery, broccoli stems and herb stems as well.

One may use a variety of herbs when making stock and experimentation is always encouraged. I have found that, because I make stock on such a regular basis and always have a supply in the freezer, it’s best that I use the same herbs every time. This way I am not surprised by the flavor of the particular batch I happen to be using. My herb garden is full of choices but I prefer to use rosemary, parsley and thyme. One could also use savory, sage and/or oregano.

I am not giving this recipe in the same format that I usually do, with measurements and such. I don’t really measure anything here, preferring to wing it each time.

The approximate ratio of water to bones and pieces is around 3:2. I use the biggest stock pot I have available. I will season the water with salt and will also add peppercorns, either whole or cracked. I will also use red pepper flakes here, about a two-finger pinch. Bring this to a near boil and then simmer over low heat, skimming off any scum that rises to the top. At this point I will also add the herbs; a few sprigs of parsley, 2 sprigs of rosemary, several sprigs of thyme, and a couple of bay leaves. I let the stock simmer for 45 minutes to an hour and then add 2 or 3 carrots, cut into large pieces, and a large onion, also cut into big chunks. I will smash several garlic cloves with the flat side of my large chef’s knife and throw those in too, along with 2-3 stalks of celery, leaves and all. Sometimes, if they are available in my garden, I will just use celery leaves. Another thing I’ll add at this point is a tablespoon of tomato paste, which gives the stock a nice color and brings out a lot of the flavor of the other ingredients. Once I’ve added the vegetables, I let the stock simmer over low heat for another 45 minutes to an hour, until the carrots are cooked through. Place a heat resistant colander over a second pot and drain the stock, being careful to catch all the liquid in the second stock pot. Discard everything else. I will clean out the first pot real good with a paper towel, making sure to get all the small pieces of chicken out. Place a fine mesh strainer over the first pot. I will also place something inside the strainer – cheesecloth, a fine cotton towel, even a coffee filter. Pour the stock through the filter and strainer, catching any remaining bits. These, if left in the stock, will turn its flavor. Place the stock back on the stove over medium heat and add a half cup to a cup of white wine, vermouth, or sherry. I will also add a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice. Adjust the seasonings, adding salt and maybe white pepper, but nothing that will cloud the broth or leave chunks of floating debris. I will continue to heat the stock until it reduces a bit. Keep tasting, you’ll know when it’s done. Allow the stock to cool and skim off any fat that rises to the top. Pour the broth into pint or quart jars, finish cooling, and freeze or keep it in the refrigerator and use it right away.

Another storage option is to continue reducing the stock until it is very strong. Cool it, pour it into ice cube trays, and freeze. Once the cubes have frozen, pop them loose and store them in a freezer bag. This allows you to use only small portions of stock if you are, say, cooking for 1 or 2 people.

This basic recipe can be used to make stock of any kind, not just chicken. Try it with beef or veal bones, lamb or, if you have plenty of vegetables, omit the meat altogether and make a hearty vegetable broth. The possibilities are endless and once you have a good supply of homemade stock on hand, there is almost nothing you can’t make taste wonderful!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fresh and Creamy Mushroom Soup

It’s been a long and busy week, leaving me no time for cooking. Today, however, I am off work and I just spent the morning with several people from our neighborhood food buying club receiving a huge produce order. Now my kitchen is filled with a spectacular array of fruits and vegetables including pineapple, fresh figs, rainbow carrots, purple bell peppers, apples, peaches, etc. Yet for all the wonderful colors and flavors I have to choose from, my eyes are drawn to the 2 lb bag of crimini mushrooms and I find myself filled with the desire to make a big pot of Creamy Mushroom Soup! The other veggies will hold for a bit but the mushrooms will start to turn real soon if not used. That’s all the justification I need!

I have toyed with several different mushroom soup recipes over the years, trying to keep the dish simple to prepare and yet hearty and mouthwatering. Unlike Cream of Mushroom soups you buy at the store which have a white saucy appearance, I feel a good mushroom soup should have a deep rich brown color, almost like gravy. This recipe achieves that goal, highlighting the earthy flavors of the mushrooms.

There are two ingredients I find to be absolutely necessary in making a really good mushroom soup; chicken stock and white wine. The stock adds an undeniable body without overwhelming the mushroom flavor while the wine, particularly a dry white, seems to “tickle” the flavor a bit, adding just enough complexity to make the soup really interesting.

Another change I made while making today’s recipe was to replace the cream in the recipe with evaporated milk. I used a 12oz can and added milk to make 2 cups. This way there is slightly less fat than using cream but I still get the same thick consistency as half and half.

Begin by taking a large stock pot and melting:
1/2 c butter (1 stick)
To this add:
1 large onion, chopped
Sauté the onion over low-medium heat until soft. Meanwhile, clean:
1-1/2 lbs crimini mushrooms
Remove the stems and chop the caps into large chunks. I will usually halve each top, then slice across every 1/4” or so. Add the chopped caps to the pan with the onions and brown for 20 minutes or so over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, place the stems in a blender with:
1 qt chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1/4 c flour
Blend until smooth. Once the mushrooms have browned a bit, add the blended mixture along with:
1/2 c dry white wine
2 t dried oregano (or 2 T if fresh)
1 bay leaf
2 t garlic powder
1 t paprika
1 t fresh ground black pepper
salt to taste
Warm over medium heat but do not boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. I recommend using a flat edged spoon, as to better scrape the bottom and corners of the pan and make sure the flour doesn’t clump or stick. After 30 minutes or so remove the bay leaf and, in small increments, stir in:
1 pt cream or half and half
Reheat but do not boil. When the soup has warmed again, add:
1/2 c fresh chopped parsley
Stir well and ladle into serving bowls or mugs. This recipe will make about 6-8 servings. It is quite excellent on its own with fresh baked rolls or as an appetizer for any meat course, as mushrooms compliment beef, pork or chicken equally well!