Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Homemade Mustard - Powerful Stuff

Way back when, I used to work in a movie theater. In the quiet time between shows, my co-workers and I used to talk and a frequent topic was trying to solve life's little mysteries such as:

Why do boys' bikes have that bar across the top of the frame but girls' bikes don't? I actually figured this one out - it's because back in the early days of bicycles, when it was a common means of transportation, women wore long skirts, and the bar across the top would require them to expose themselves.

Exactly what is the purpose of a necktie? I don't know the definitive answer to this one, but my theory is that it was originally intended to hide the buttons. This theory is based on the observations that formal mens clothing (like tuxedoes) use double fronted shirts and/or stud, and cuff-links. Apparently, there was something unseemly about buttons in the old days, and they weren't supposed to show.

Why does mustard come in much smaller jars than mayonaise? I never figured this one out, and for thirty years or so it's been a mystery. One of my co-workers suggested that since mustard gas is poisonous, maybe large quantities of mustard are toxic. I never bought into that theory, but finally, I'm pretty sure I've solved the mystery - it's because real mustard is powerful stuff, and a little bit goes a long way. It comes in smaller containers because it's used in smaller quantities due to its strength, and the small container of mustard will last approximately the same amount of time as the big jar of mayo.

I figured this out, of course, by trying my hand at making homemade mustard. I did a fair amount of reading before I started, and it seemed pretty simple and straight forward. Mustard, the condiment, is made from Mustard, the seeds. The seeds come in three basic varieties: white (or yellow) which it the mildest; brown, which is hotter; and black, which is supposed to kind of rare and extremely hot. The seeds are soaked in liquid - water, wine, vinegar, juice, for a period of time, other spices are added, then everything is ground in to a paste.

Everyone knows there are some basic variations on mustard - American mustard is tangy but not hot, and is distinctively yellow. European mustards are more brownish, and may be hot, sweet, and frequently have wine and whole seeds in them; Asian mustard are yellow or brown, and tend to be very hot. As a kid, I just plain disliked mustard and only ate it if forced to. As I got older, I learned that mustard actually enhanced some foods, especially sausages, and I slowly grew to appreciate the palatte of available mustards and to seek out and try new ones. Although I really groove to hot peppers, I still don't like the hot Asian mustards.

What really got me interested in making mustard at home though, is my daughter. Although she doesn't like anything even remotely spicy as a rule, she LOVES mustard on her sandwiches. She started out with honey-mustard, but now loves plain American mustard. My standard mustard these days is the spicy brown kind, which she's still not really sure about though, mostly because the word 'spicy' in the name. When I told her I was going to try and make mustard, she was really intrigued, so I decided that my first mustard would be American style.

American mustard gets its distinctive yellow color from the addition of turmeric, which turns the pale yellow of yellow mustard paste nearly flourescent. You can of course make a pretty good mustard by mixing dry mustard powder with water, and adding whatever else you want to the mix, but that just wouldn't be the Luddite way, would it? No, I started with the seeds.

I got to work, adding a quarter cup of yellow mustard seeds to a canning jar along with a quarter cup of vinegar. I added a teaspoon of turmeric, salt, and pepper, closed the jar up, and shook it well. Then I put it on the shelf for a couple days, until I could get back to it.

As would be expected, when I got back to it last night, the seeds had soaked up nearly all of the liquid, and had swelled accordingly. I dumped the whole mixture into my blender, added a little water, and set my controls for 'liquefy'. I turned it off less than a minute later because there wasn't enough liquid, and the blender couldn't really do it's thing. It definitely was starting to look like mustard though - so I tasted it. Man, that was extreme! Besides adding some more water, I added a little more salt, and a teaspoon of sugar. The blender did it's thing, and turned the conglomeration into a nice, thick, mustard-looking paste. It was still super strong though, so I added a little more salt, some more sugar, and blended it again. The result was better, but still not right, and only marginally appealing. I was considering dumping the batch and starting over, when I noticed the open bottle of wine I had on the counter. What the heck? I thought, and added about a quarter cup. The result was still very strong, more runny than I like, but tasty enough to actually use, so I jarred it back up and stuck it in the fridge. I've got a couple pounds of Kielbasa waiting for it's date night with that mustard.

So, I've actually made mustard, but I don't really consider myself a mustard-maker at this point. The process definitely needs some work. I'm thinking that the next time I'm not going to soak the seeds in vinegar, but in either wine or water and see if that helps. I've also read that longer soaking or aging the mustard before putting in the fridge can mellow out the flavor. I'll work on this until I get it right, and post the results here. I will conquer mustard.

Next on the condiment trail is ketchup.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, Monday...

I had a really busy weekend. I did a lot, but only a fraction of what I had planned to do. Productivity-wise, Saturday was a waste: I spent seven hours just hanging out with some friends and shooting the breeze. It was good for me spiritually though, and broke up the monotony of being alone (which is a factor no matter how comfortable you are with yourself).

That meant on Sunday, I had to try to cram as much into one day as I possibly could, and I made the best of it. There were the routine chores, of course - namely laundry, dusting, and deep cleaning. I also got some woodworking done - I still have about eight crates of books that need a place to rest in the house, so I'm building new book shelves to house them. Book shelves are pretty straight forward to construct, and I've built enough of them at this point that I have a standard plan and dimensions, so that except for finishing and waiting for glue to dry, I can build one a day. The one I'm working on right now though is bigger than normal, and lacking enough clamps is taking a little longer. Still, it ought to be sitting in its place of honor within a week. Once it's done, I have two smaller bookshelves to build for the kids' rooms, and I'm done with shelves and on to tables for a while. I'll post some pictures when I'm done.

I also got some cooking done. Everything I make isn't worthy of posting a recipe, and every recipe I use isn't mine to share, but I will heartily endorse Lisa Fain's (of Homesick Texan fame, previously mentioned) Tex-Mex Meatloaf. Good stuff, and my stomach thanks her. I also whipped up a couple pints of real chili sauce for the enchiladas I plan to make later in the week (recipe will be posted), 2 quarts of escabeche (pickled jalapenos, onions, cauliflower, and carrots), and made my first attempt at homemade mustard (it's still in the soaking phase, so I don't know how it's going to turn out yet.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lenten Fair

Maybe it's a little strange, but I always look forward to Lent. It's a tough time of year - not really winter (not that we've had much of a winter this year), and definitely not spring yet. Lent, with its focus on penance, self-reflection, and self-denial seems like the last thing that would brighten up an already difficult time of year, but I find it invigorating. In a lot of ways, it's my New Year's ritual

I take it seriously, too. I fast to the extent that I can: I have medical problems that make full fasting unwise, but I eat more simply, I forgo meat on Fridays, and I observe the traditional practice of 'giving something up' for Lent in addition to the newer idea of 'picking something new' for Lent - that is, developing some positive new habit.

As a committed carnivore, but also someone who doesn't like fish (which for some strange reason don't count as meat), I have to admit that planning meals without meat is something of a puzzler. While married, my wife had grown up as a vegetarian and could throw something together without thinking - me, not so much. The problem is a little more complicated still, now that I've transitioned to almost completely cooking from scratch - a quick meal of rice and beans isn't so quick when you can't just open a can of beans and the long cook time requires advanced planning.

To the rescue, comes lentils - not a bean, but a pulse, they have a relatively short cook time, coincidentally almost identical with that of brown rice. This has quickly become my favorite lenten meal:

Brown Rice and Lentils

5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup brown rice
1 cup lentils
1/2 cup celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, dice
1 onion diced
1/2 cup jalapeno peppers, sliced into rings
salt and pepper to taste

Throw everything in a pot, bring to a boil over medium high heat, then lower to maintain a simmer for 45 minutes or until everything is done. I get about 4 servings.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Glory of Homemade Mayonaise

This wasn't the Luddite victory I hoped it would be, but making one's own mayonaise is most definitely a victory, and a tasty and satisfying one at that. I made my initial attempt with a hand whisk, but this attempt failed (although it did yield a very tasty almost-mayo sauce). I made another go, and decided to remove the variable of my own pathetic whisking and this time used a blender.

The ingredients to a basic mayo are pretty simple (the possible variations, however, are endless):

2 egg yolks
6 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar - I used freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 tablespoon of dry mustard
salt to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup of some kind of oil - I used the last of my storebought vegetable oil.

Add the egg yolks, salt, and mustard to the blender, along with 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Start the blender on a low speed, and keep your eye on it. After a couple minutes, you'll hear the blender start to slow down a little, add a few drops of oil. Let it process, and add a few more drops. You should hear the blender start working harder and harder - slowly add more oil. The key here is to add the oil very slowly, and after you add some, wait a bit for the blender to do its thing before you add some more. Gradually, the mixture in the blender will really start to look like mayo and continue to thicken. Add the rest of the lemon juice, and continue to drizzle in the oil until it's all gone. At some point, the mayo in the blender is going to get as thick as the blender can manage on low speed. You could scrape down the sides, but at this point you run the risk of breaking the mayo (which can be fixed, but why do it if you don't have to?). I transfered the mayo to a glass bowl, and finished it by hand.

Now taste it... Go ahead...

Mine was mind-numbingly good. It was like I'd never actually tasted mayo before. I transferred mine to a mason jar, and stuck it in the fridge. My BLT's are even better than they've ever been before.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Magical Lemonade

Today makes one whole week since I've started living alone. Yesterday was the first day that the kids have stayed for dinner. They elected to have hotdogs, which have always been one of my guilty pleasures. Once she was done with her home work, my daughter came into the kitchen to see what I was doing - I was scooping out avocados for a bowl of guacamole, but she became fixated on the basket of lemons and limes I had on the counter. "My teacher says," began my daughter, with a level of earnest concern that only a six-year old can maintain, "that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. But lemons are too sour for that..."

"Well, you're wrong about that," I told her. "You can't make lemonade at all without lemons. You just have to know what else to add to it, otherwise it would be called 'lemon juice' instead of 'lemonade'."

"Let's make some then!" she beamed.

Maggie's Super-special Lemonade

  • Juice of 4 Lemons

  • Juice of 2 Limes

  • Water to taste - a quart to two quarts, depending on your particular six-year old. We used almost two

  • Sugar to taste - we used a little more than half a cup.

Juice lemons and limes in a large pitcher. Add 1/4 cup of sugar. Mix well until sugar dissolves. Add more water and sugar as needed until you think it's right.

Maggie says to garnish with a couple of lemon seeds and a little bit of pulp, just so you don't forget it's super special and homemade.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Darn Good Soup

Last night I thought soup and a sandwich would be a pretty good supper. Generally, I'm not a soup man, but I had some vegetables I needed to use up before they went bad: Some leeks that I bought on a whim, never having eaten them or cooked them before, and some baby portobello mushrooms. I bought the leeks because I love onions, and decided that I'm going to try all the different kinds there are. I did a quick recipe of, and a common use for them seems to be as a companion to potatoes in soup. I frequently browse Allrecipes for ideas, but have found the recipes there to be of random quality. Beside, I already know how to make potato soup, so I set to cooking. Here's what I came up with:

Charles' Potato, Leek, and Mushroom Soup

4 largeish Yukon Gold potatoes
4 cloves of garlic
3 Leeks, dark green tops and root ends removed
12 Baby Belle Mushrooms
Chicken stock (low sodium)
Salt, to taste
Black Pepper, freshly ground, to taste
1 Tablespoon of Garam Masala (optional, but recommended)
1 can evaporated milk

1. Peel potatoes and slice thinly on a mandoline. Uniform size is important for even cooking time, thin is important for reducing cooking time. Place slices in a soup or stock time, add chicken broth to cover potatoes, plus an inch or two. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a low boil, stir occasionally to prevent potatoes on the bottom from burning. Add a little salt and pepper to taste.

2. Slice leeks in half length-wise, then into thin half-moons. Slice mushrooms to your own liking. Heat a healthy table-spoon of oil in a skillet or saute-pan. Once the oil is hot, add leeks, mushrooms, minced garlic, garam masala, and sautee until tender.

3. When potatoes are soft, drain but retain the stock. Drain any remaining oil from the leeks and mushrooms, and add the leeks and mushrooms to the potatoes. Add the condensed milk, and retained stock to obtain desired consistency.

4. Bring back to a simmer, stirring occasionally, adjust seasoning to taste (I added a good healthy pinch of cayenne), and add stock if needed to maintain desired consistency (I like my potato soup to be on thick side, so I didn't add any more). Simmer 20-30 minutes (until you're happy that the flavors have properly married).

I seriously enjoyed this soup - so much so that I completely forgot about the grilled cheese sandwich I made to go with it and went back for a second bowl.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Busy times

Well, I'm livng alone now in my big house, and I've been busy, busy, busy.

First, there's the cleaning. It's not a big deal really, just time consuming. I spent the weekend sweeping, vaccuuming, mopping, wiping, and dusting, and I'm still not done. In my previous incarnation as a single man I discovered that 30 minutes of intense cleaning activity every day was sufficient to keep the house clean. I lived in a much smaller townhouse then, however, and I'm not really sure it'll be enough to keep this house clean. A good base cleaning can't help but make things easier.

I wish Icould tell you about all the clever, homemade cleaning solutions I've come up with, but there hasn't been any of that. Unlike many divorces, this one didn't start out with me in an empty house, and my ex left pretty much everything that was already open, so I'm using up what she left before I start experimenting with homemade cleaners.


When I haven't been cleaning, I've mostly been cooking. I did a marathon grocery shopping trip to stock my pantry, and have been putting those gorceries to good use. I roasted a chicken that was absolutely delicious. I made a great meal of Polish Kielbasa, cabbage, onions, and potatoes, a noodle and chicken stir fry with left overs from the roast chicken (and still have enough left for a couple more meals), a Corned beef brisket, and a yummy spinach and mushroom curry, all cooked from scratch. I'll be posting recipes soon.

"Free Time"

I've been busy enough that there hasn't been a whole lot, but when I've had some, I started knitting a scarf. Knitting isn't the most manly of past times, but it is productive and fulfilling. Sometimes it's downright frustrating, such as when my work popped off the needle and I essentially had to start over. Maybe an expert knitter could have salvage things, but I am by no means an expert knitter.

I also started incorporating regular guitar practice into my daily routine. Only 20 minutes a day right now, as I need to get my fingers back into shape. No beautiful music yet, just 20 minutes of scales and chord change drills to build up some stamina. Anyone who hasn't attempted to learn guitar has no idea the amount of conditioning needed in one's fingertips, and finger muscles.

Making the quest for finger conditioning that much more difficult, I gouged the tip of my right thumb adjusting the fence on my table saw. I have a half-built bookshelf that I could really use right now, and only ten minutes into working on it, I started shedding blood.

Coming soon

These post will be more organized and actually contain some useful information. There should also be more of them. I plan to start posting my recipes, photos of my projects, tutorials or links to tutorials on what I'm up to, and to turn this blog into a source of useful information.

Until then, may God bless you with fair winds and following seas....

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When is it waste?

I'm smack in the middle of putting my household together. This has meant buying a lot of stuff - some of which it actually irks me to buy, and which goes against my normal sensibilities. A good example of this is plastic storage containers. It's not just that they're plastic, but that they're labeled as 'disposable'.

So why did I buy them? Well, for a number of reasons: First, they're really cheap and there are just so many things I need to establish a working household, and need now, I can't afford to pass up a bargain; Second, while they're billed as 'disposable', my experience is that they can be reused often and actually hold up for a long time, even a couple years if well taken care of; Third, and this is the real heart of the matter - since I plan to cook a lot, and mostly from scratch or near-scratch, I need to be able to store things. To cook effectively for one, I need to be able to cook in quantity and save what isn't consumed immediately for later use, especially for lunches. In order to be saved, the food has to be stored in something. Thus, plastic storage containers, and no small number of them are a logical choice, and seem to be a wise use of my limited money. So is it wasteful to purchase these containers?

Thinking about this led to my questioning other aspects of waste - money vs. time; money vs. resources; time vs. resources; space vs. energy; etc. More permanent, non-plastic (or less-plastic) solutions to the problem of food storage that I came up with are mason jars; re-cycled jars from gorcery store products, and commercial glass bowl (like pyrex) with plasticy resealable lids. I do use mason jars for storing dry goods in, as well as for sprouting, and a few other things. I like the commercial pyrex bowls too, but they're expensive, and the lids are still plastic. Admittedly though, I usually don't repurpose the glass jars that come with grocery store products, and simply put them in the recycling bin. Obviously, this is something I need to correct.

Another conundrum occurred to me while thinking about this and dealing with a limited budget: most food stuffs - from potato chips to spices are cheaper when bought in bulk quantities. For a larger group of people, this is a no-brainer. But what about for a single-person household? Should we only buy small quantities, and sacrifice our money and the time it took to earn that money? To me, the logical course is to buy the large quantities, and take steps to mitigate spoilage through repackaging. Unfortunately, this seems to mean learning to live with more plastic.

So what's the biggest waste? My time and money, the resources used for 'disposable packaging', or letting food go to waste?