Friday, March 23, 2012

Spring with a vengeance

The very evening of my last post, "not feeling very well" turned into feeling downright wretched, and the next 36 hours or so left a great deal to be desired. That was no fun at all.

Meanwhile, Spring has arrived, not gradually, but all at once, and it's been borderline hot even. Spring of course, means planting, and planting I have done - not all of it yet, but some - mostly herbs and onions, but some greens as well. A frost is still possible, but really, I'm more worried about the lettuce bolting with the heat than I am about a frost.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Complexity of Food

Not much to write about this week. I haven't been feeling well, my work schedule has been demanding, and I've been helping my local Amateur Radio Club build up some infrastructure, so I haven't started anything new. Not starting anything new doesn't mean what it used to mean though - I whipped up my weekly batch of mayonaise, pickled some more carrots, and have been minding the sauerkraut. Spring has arrived early this year, so that means clearing debris from the yard, freshening up the compost piles, and some minor planting. No extravagant cooking though.

Last night, I was getting my grocery list ready for my next trip to the store, and I was struck by how complex food is, even when one is eating simply. I don't think that it occurs to many people when their food is mostly prepared for them by others, but as I go back to basics, buying only raw foods and prepare or process them myself, I've become aware of things that never occurred to me before...

Take potatoes, for instance. Potatoes are a simple and verstile food, suitable for a wide range of cooking methods. All potatoes aren't the same though - some are waxy, and some are starchy. I now keep a supply of at least three different kinds: Russets, Yukons, and Reds. To some extent they're interchangable, but they each excel in some culinary situation where the others simply make do - A russet is your standard baking potato, and I normally use yukons for roasting or mashing, and a red is wonderful boiled along with a pot roast.

Then there's cheese - some cheeses melt, others don't. Some are crumbly, and other want to be shredded. It goes on and on with all the other kinds of food there are. I'm no expert on the matter, but the adventure of discovering the nuances intrigues me.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sick children, but time in the kitchen

I didn't have time to write much this week. Both my kids got sick so I spent three of the past five days playing 'Nurse Dad'.

I did get to spend some time in the kitchen though and was able to break some new ground in my efforts at home-based food preservation.

Beef Jerky

Late last week, I bought a food dehydrator. Not a top of the line model, but not the bottom either. It's made of plastic, which doesn't warm my heart any, but I thought it would be a convenient vehicle for learning - removing some of the variables and ease the learning curve. There was never any question about what I would make first - beef jerky.

I've been wanting to make beef jerky for a long time, mostly just because I like it, but buying the stuff in stores is EXPENSIVE, making what was once a staple food into more of a luxury. Why it costs so much is even more of a mystery to me now than it was before. The process was simple: take a piece of beef - in my case, it was a piece of steak on sale at the grocery store for about $3.00, remove all visible fat and silverskin; slice it thin; marinate it for 24 hours; put it in the dehydrator for six or seven hours; enjoy.

The marinade I used was some apple cider vinegar, worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, a dab of dijon mustard, red pepper flakes, kosher salt, black pepper, and some ground ginger.

The results were awesome. I brought some into work and it was devoured.

Queso Blanco

This is probably the simplest cheese there is. I made this attempt on a whim. I took the left over milk I had (my kids don't drink enough milk at my house to use up a whole gallon before it goes bad anymore) Some of it was skim milk and some of it was whole milk, all total, about 3/4 gallon and added a couple teaspoons of salt. I brought it up to 190 degrees F - precisely and slowly and then removed it from the heat, and then added the juice of 2 limes and 1/4 cup of white vinegar. I let it sit for a while - maybe 20 minutes. Looking at it, I wasn't sure I had accomplished anything, but I poured the mixture through a strainer lined with a tea towel, and sure enough there were curds. I let the curds drain for a while before squeezing them semi-dry and packing them into a jar. CHEESE! It's really great as a salad topper too.


I don't actually know if this is a success yet, but so far, it seems like it's working. I had two heads of cabbage, weighing maybe 4 pounds. I tried to shed them on my mandolin, but the cabbage thought that was hilarious. I ended up just using a knife. As shredded the cabbage into strips, I thew them into a bowl with some salt - 4 teaspoons total, but added a little at a time. When I was finished shredding, I squashed the cabbage down into the bowl with my potato masher and let it sit for a while. I came back a couple times and squashed it down some more, and mixed the shred up some. After about 30-45 minutes of letting it sit with occasional mashing and mixing, I packed the cabbage into jars (I don't have a crock). There was some liquid in the bowl, but not enough to submerge the cabbage in even one jar. My research was unclear about what to do in this case, since the cabbage is supposed to be submerged to properly ferment, so I added enough filtered water to fill the jars and submerge the cabbage and a little more salt - about a teaspoon per jar. I capped them loosely, wrapped them in towels and stuck them in the cabinets.

The fermentation process is supposed to take a few weeks at least, and it's only been four days. Every other day, you're supposed to squash the cabbage back down and remove any mold that forms on the surface. I've only had to squash them down once so far, and I was worried that by adding the water and more salt that maybe I'd messed things up. When I uncapped the jars though, the smell was distinctly krautish, and there were lots of bubbles on the surface which is a sure-fire sign that fermentation is happening. The cabbage doesn't look any different yet, so I really don't know if it's working or not. I'll let you know in three weeks or so.

More Pickles

Specifically, carrots. I made two batches with the help of my daughter: one sweet (for her) and one spicy (for me). Both batches are quick, infusion-type pickles, and both batches came out well. My daughter seems really proud of herself too, when she asks for a snack of her own special, homemade pickles.