Thursday, July 31, 2008

Creamery conundrum

The dairy farmer traded a lawn mower for this old cream separator. "Runs good," he was told, but it's filthy. Any suggestions on how best to clean it?

I've got milk

Two quarts from Sweetie and Lafawnduh (I was spelling her name wrong before), and about a gallon from Cutie, fresh and frozen.

I'm going to make a big batch of ricotta tonight so I can make the savory ricotta cheesecake from Heidi at 101 Cookbooks this weekend.

My raspberries are abundant, too, so raspberry ice cream is on the agenda for tomorrow.

Green day

Once again, the cow-orkers and I got the psychic memo. That's me in the front.

It's happened before. Going green is all the rage these days, you know.

What I'm reading:
"Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper"
by Fuchsia Dunlop

How lucky I am to read two excellent food memoirs in a row. "Amarcord" by Marcella Hazan was a very satisfying journey through her life, and you should definitely put it on your list when it comes out in October.

Tonight I finished yet another fascinating read, "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China" by Fuchsia Dunlop.

Fuchsia first went to China in the early '90s (right about the time I left) on a grant to research Chinese minorities. But she soon found her interest straying to the marvelous food of Sichuan. She was studying in Chengdu, which was then a laid-back city of teahouses and hotpot restaurants. She and her friends, ex-pats and Chinese, would seek out good cheap food, and she would pay attention to how it was prepared, quizzing the cooks and exploring the markets.

Somehow she talked her way into a Chinese cooking school, which offered not only the challenges of rigorous courses but the barriers of language (everyone spoke the Sichuan dialect rather than the Mandarin she knew) and of culture (many of her classmates – mostly male – were baffled by her presence and less than friendly). But she persevered, and found a new career.

She went on to author a cookbook of Sichuan cuisine, and became a food writer for magazines and newspapers, exploring the many regional cooking styles of China.

This is a book I wish I could have read before I went to China, as it explains so many things I wondered about (like why everyone insisted on serving sea slug on special occasions, even though it's flavorless and has the consistency of a bicycle tire).

I think I would have appreciated some of the food a lot more, knowing the details she provides. Her writing really took me back, reminding me of many of the dishes I did enjoy. I would kill for a skewer of street mutton right now.

You don't have to be an old China hand to enjoy this book, though. Her adventures in travel and eating are well-told and entertaining, and she includes some recipes you can try for yourself.

As she notes, the Chinese word for population, renkou (人口) translates literally as "people mouths," and with 1.3 billion mouths, China has a lot of eating going on. You can sample some of it vicariously by reading this book.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Top seed

About three weeks ago I was rolling through my blog subscriptions and saw a riddle from Kenny Point at Veggie Gardening Tips: What type of plants are wild but edible, cold-blooded, slippery, nutritious, and can be extremely valuable back home in the organic vegetable garden?

At first I thought it might be purslane (I had purslane on the brain at that point), but as a weed, I don't find it particularly valuable.

But then his picture of the ocean tipped me off: Seaweed!

A short time later, Kenny emailed me to say thanks for answering the riddle and he offered to send me some heirloom seeds. It wasn't a contest, he said, but I felt like I'd won one.

The seeds just arrived:
Wow! Neat! And packed for 2009, so I can plant some now and save the rest for next spring.

There's Kabocha Winter Squash, Sunset Flower Herb, He-Shi-Ko Bunching Onions, Cambodian Green Giant Eggplant, Empereur Alexandre Cucumbers and Rocky Top Lettuce Salad.

What a bounty! I hope the ones I plant now will have enough time to flourish. I'll just do a few this season, with crossed fingers.

If you like vegetable gardening, be sure to check out Veggie Gardening Tips. There's a lot of useful info there from a generous and knowledgeable gardener.

Thanks, Kenny!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fire drill!

Mexican chocolate pudding

I wanted to see how Cutie's milk would work in pudding, and I've had my eye on Deb at Smitten Kitchen's Best Chocolate Pudding ever since she posted it in February (for Valentine's Day, natch).
You need:
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

I doubled the recipe because I had a lot of milk and time was a-wastin' (more on that later). The doubled recipe calls for 12 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate. I had a couple 1-ounce squares of that, and also some discs of Mexican chocolate, which has cinnamon and sugar added. I cut the sugar to about 3/4 cup to compensate.

Only one problem: that Mexican stuff is pretty dang hard!
I started to chop it, but only scratched the surface. Not wanting to mess up my cleaver, I resorted to my trusty mallet. Many good whacks later, the chocolate was in smaller chunks.

Combine the sugar, corn starch and salt, then whisk in the milk. You then heat the milk in a double boiler over simmering water. You can make your own double boiler with two pots or a pot and a metal bowl. I like using a copper bowl because it seals well with the pot and you can gently stir the mixture quite easily without missing any spots on the bottom. Thick copper is good for a nice, even heat.
Here's a perfect example of why you should set your white balance. The photo on the left is lit by some overhead halogen lights, the incandescent under the range hood, and some daylight coming in the window. Without setting my white balance, the photo looks jaundiced. But by pointing my camera at the milk and telling it, "This is white," it adjusted nicely.

With this amount of milk, it takes twice as long to thicken. Half an hour to 40 minutes, stirring regularly. You may want to whisk it, too, if it gets lumpy. Once it coats the back of a spoon, mix in the chocolate and stir/whisk for a few more minutes.

I was pretty sure there weren't any lumps, but I sieved it anyway and then added the vanilla. There were indeed a couple little lumps of cornstarch. It wouldn't have been terrible, but the sieving made the pudding extra silky.

I ended up with eight generous servings:
Now, this pudding tastes quite good! I probably could have cut the sugar even further because of the sweetened chocolate, but it's not overbearingly sweet. I also think I didn't put enough corn starch in. I didn't pack it down when I measured. It's pudding, but not as thick as I would like.

Unfortunately, though, I think I waited too long on using Cutie's milk. As noted before, her milk starts to get a little funky after a day or two. I waited three. While the pudding tastes just fine when you're eating it, there's a distinct goatiness that lingers in the back of the throat when you've finished.

Since I'm trying to find recipes to use her milk to best advantage, I'd say this one will work just fine provided it's made on milking day or the day after. Her milk is also being frozen, and this might work with that, too.

Of course, you can use store-bought milk. If you like chocolate pudding, you'll love this recipe. Thanks again, Deb!

Other recently tested goat-milk recipes:
lacto-fermented sauerkraut (with an update here)
honey vanilla ice cream
Raspberry ice cream
ricotta cheese
And a great use for the ricotta:
Ricotta torte with squash, corn and dill

Monday, July 28, 2008

Garden progress

The tomatoes are ripening! I've got one Amish paste ready to pick, and many more green on the vine, above. This mutant variety at left is a "hybrid large red." That's what the tag says. I got it at the Extension plant sale. But I bet it'll taste good!
I have eight (or is it nine?) tomato plants tied up to two trellises. But one plant that I meant to find a trellis for I never did. So it's a ground tomato, an Early Girl:
I know that's bad for tomatoes, but that's the way it goes.

I also have a wee trellising problem with the cellini beans. Some of them have decided they'd rather colonize the overgrown oregano. Could it be Nature's cooking instructions?

I'm going to run some string up and try to redirect the vines rather than attempt to untangle them. They're already blooming profusely. I should probably cut back the oregano, too.

Much as I have given the salvia out front a haircut. That's an untrimmed mop on the left, below, and a shorn one on the right. They should bloom again now.
I was all excited to find some baby cukes on the plants that are a little too shaded by the bolting arugula. Until I worked my way around to the other side of the patch while weeding and found a grown-up one!
The green peppers are also coming along nicely.
Finally, I have a word of advice: Be careful where you put down your weeding tools. I spent a fruitless several minutes digging through the dumpster with my garden fork, sure that I'd dumped out my dandelion digger along with a bucket of weeds.

Only to discover later that I had stashed it safely out of sight under the bolting cilantro.
I'm going to look out for yellow plastic "caution" tape ("police line do not cross!") and snip off a length to tie on my digger. Whose bright idea was it to make the handle green??

Silly kitchen gadget No. 14

While hanging out at the "retail resort" the other day, I popped into Williams Sonoma and Crate & Barrel to see what silly gadgets I might find for this series. Surprisingly, neither had much to mock. Or maybe not surprisingly, since they strive to cater to the more discerning.

I did find one thing at Williams Sonoma that gave me pause. Like the New York Times Toaster, the function of this object – a wine decanter – is useful, but the form is laughable.

Does it remind you of anything?

In my search for images, I also ran across this ancient Chinese example: “Celadon Huxi (Chamber Pot) Western Jin A.D. 265-337” in a Shanghai museum.

Now that would make a great wine decanter.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

PR: You're doin' it wrong

I got two bits of PR in my inbox in the last few days. One had the subject line: "Denver Open Call for a new Food Network show"

I felt a little frisson of delighted disbelief. Food show? Moi? Could my kitchen dabblings have caught someone's attention?

Then I read on:
Essentially, we are looking for the worst cooks in America; people who have a great desire to learn but just can't seem to get it right. ... (W)e want to meet them and transform them into culinary superstars! This is an exciting opportunity for the worst kitchen offenders to train to cook like a professional!
Cue the loser sound effect: "Wahn-wahn-

I felt like I'd just won a goat on "Let's Make a Deal."

And we all know I like goats, but I'd rather have the new car.

Maybe I'm not as good a cook as I thought.

Then today I got another bit of PR spam, titled: "Hey Kitt. Go green for the planet and for your pallet!"

They want me to shill their raw-food product in return for a cut of the proceeds.

I suggest they learn the difference between "pallet" and "palate" first.

Homemade sauerkraut update

I'm still here and not suffering any ill effects from my "big jar of poison," as commenter dg called it. (Go visit his blog, The Psychopedia. He'll do his best to slay you by other means.)

I brought the jar out of the cellar after three days (like Jesus!) and had a taste. It was very ... cabbage-y. But also quite tangy. Clearly the fermentation had taken place. Tried it again today. Tangy-er ("tangier" looks funny) and less cabbage-y. I think I need to let it do its thing for a while longer, and I think it could use a little more salt. I love sauerkraut, but I don't think I've ever had homemade before. It's kind of like hearing the concert version of a radio song you really like. It's ... different, and you're not sure if that's OK.
But I think it will be.

My post about preparing it is here.

Other recently tested goat-milk recipes:
honey vanilla ice cream
Raspberry ice cream
Mexican chocolate pudding
ricotta cheese
And an excellent use for the ricotta:
Ricotta torte with squash, corn and dill

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bolting for bees

When salad and herb plants flower and go to seed, they are said to have "bolted." If I were a good gardener (and not a lazy/too busy/laissez-faire one), I would have been pinching back everything to prevent this.

But then how would the bees spice up their diet?

They love the oregano:
The basil:
And the arugula:
They have other dining options, too. Such as sedum that is flowering profusely this year:
The hearty echinacea:
And the brilliant cosmos:
How I wish they would share their honey with me!

Paved with good intentions

I posted the picture at right on May 17. I was digging out the sod to put in flagstones at the entrance to the yard, inside the gate. The Sergeant graciously helped me by lugging bags of sand and some flagstones over to the gate.

Where they sat. And sat. And sat some more.

I'm not sure why I thought this was good project to do immediately. It was fine having grass there. There are other projects that are more pressing, including putting flagstones or pavers through the border on the other side of the yard so I'm not stepping on dirt or flowers when I pass through.

Maybe I was thinking I wanted to "claim" the entrance to the yard in some way, having just installed the gate. An easy project with not too many steps that I could get my head around doing. Not a huge commitment, and not something having a lot of bearing on the overall eventual design of the yard.

See, I need to have a grand plan for the yard. It's all grass now, with a couple of bordering beds (mostly empty) and the vegetable garden in one corner. It's a big blank slate, is what it is.

But I don't know what the plan should be. Formal? Informal? Geometric? Meandering? Beds? Berms? Gazebos? Trellises? Fruit trees? Hedges? Tall grasses? Stepping stones? Fountain? Pond? Potager?

Oh God.

So, this entrance was a little thing I could start on. Which I did, then left it until today. As it happened, the free landscaping materials I just got from my cow-orker included big square pavers. Which also just so happened to be exactly the right size for the hole I'd dug out.

So maybe waiting was a good thing. My flagstones are oddball shapes. That's good for some kinds of paths, but with the traffic through the gate, something more level and smooth is probably better.

I put down landscaping fabric in a double layer, then some paver sand over it to help level the blocks. Then the pavers went down.

Then the pavers came up again because I'd used too much sand. The stones were so high the gate was scraping on them. I removed some sand and put the pavers down again. Got them level and spaced as evenly as I could. Well, they're level, but not precisely spaced. Fuck it. Those suckers weigh 50 pounds apiece and I couldn't get enough leverage to skootch them around.

But once I filled in the gaps with sand they looked OK.
At least it's done.

And P.S., don't buy paver sand. It's full of rocks the size of marbles. Which makes it harder to level everything. Get the finer sand for that. I'm thinking even kitty litter might work in a pinch. Unless you know of some reason why it wouldn't.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A question to brood over

I stopped in at Vitamin Cottage (they sell organic produce and bulk foods in addition to vitamins) to see if they had rennet (they didn't) and picked up some eggs while I was there. Not these eggs. These eggs I just picked up a picture of.

I checked around online, and found that fertile eggs don't have any added nutritional benefits. So why buy them?

There should not be any developed embryos in them if they were collected promptly and stored cold. If you were to find one that had reached the balut stage, you would be right to complain (unless you like balut).

On a backyard chicken forum, I found that you can incubate these eggs if you get a batch that is not too far out from being laid and has not been kept below 50 degrees. But you'd get a much better success rate with eggs from a local farmer.

"The hens are ISA Browns or Bovans, and the roosters are 95 percent Hyline w-36 Whites." Whatever that means. ( I should clarify: that info came from the chicken forum, not the carton. These eggs are meant to be eaten, not incubated.)

These are Southern California chicken eggs, from Chino Valley Ranchers in Arcadia.

Again, why would one buy fertile eggs?

It's not a mall

It's a "retail resort." Seriously. That's what they call it. I'm hanging out here while my car gets a tune-up.

What is it? No. 18

When I shoot cars, I try to make sure my image isn't reflected in the chrome. I didn't do so well on that here. But that's OK; this is just for fun.

Can you guess what it is? Click on the photo to find out!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Honey vanilla goat-milk ice cream

When I made ricotta the other day, I had exactly 3 cups of milk left. As it happened, that was just the amount called for in this ice cream recipe I found online, in a discussion on ice cream texture. I love vanilla and honey, so why not?
Here's what I needed (with my modifications added):
3 cups goat milk
2 whole vanilla beans (I used one)
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup honey (but half a cup would be sufficient)

You gently heat your milk with the scraped vanilla pods in it. I thought two pods would be overkill, so I only used one. Then you add your honey. This is a good way to use honey that has solidified; you can nuke it or warm it in hot tap water just enough to get it out of the container, and it will melt the rest of the way in the milk.

While the milk is heating, beat your eggs yolks. The recipe says "until smooth and lemon colored." I pulled out a lemon ... yep, it's lemony!
When the milk and honey are nice and hot, almost simmering (but not boiling!), you remove the vanilla pod(s) and gently pour the milk into the yolks, whisking as you do so.

Now, this recipe was focused on super-smooth texture, so it suggests sieving the milk before you add the honey and again after you mix the milk and yolks. I may try that later, but it didn't seem critical, so I skipped it this time.

You chill the liquid for at least an hour or two (or, in my case, overnight), then "prepare it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions."

Here's a hint: If you take the ice cream maker liner out of the freezer, process the ice cream immediately. Don't leave the liner sitting on the counter while you do something else, or it will thaw out so much that your ice cream doesn't completely gel. It will be more the consistency of a melty milkshake, like this:
All is not lost, however. Just pack your melty milkshake into an airtight container and freeze it for several hours (or overnight, as in my case. Do you sense a pattern in my cooking here?). Since it's already mostly frozen, it will harden up nicely without needing more stirring and will be scoopable (and more photogenic, accessorized with my handmade bee skep):
But how does it taste? you ask. How does it compare with store-bought ice cream? Well, thanks to Katy at Sugarlaws, I was in the position to do the perfect taste-test: homemade honey-vanilla goat-milk ice cream vs. Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Honey-Bee ice cream.

Häagen-Dazs had sent Katy some gift certificates to give away, and I won one! Thanks, Katy!
I hung onto it for a while (I kept forgetting it was in my purse when I did my infrequent Safeway shopping – I don't often buy ice cream), until this perfect occasion arose. Häagen-Dazs, meet your match!
My ice cream is just a little yellower, and has visible vanilla seeds. The texture is also a little lighter and more crystallized, as you would expect. Strictly speaking, I made ice milk rather than ice cream. The Häagen-Dazs is mostly cream, hence creamier.
And the taste? Remarkably similar ... and delicious! The honey is much more pronounced in mine, presumably because there is a higher proportion of it (the Häagen-Dazs has honey plus sugar), leaving a noticeable honey aftertaste. I used just under 3/4 cup, and I think I could cut that to half a cup or even less to bring out the vanilla more. My local, raw honey may also be stronger. Or I could use two vanilla pods, but less is more, in my book.

The creaminess of the Häagen-Dazs is nice, but frankly I preferred the lighter mouth-feel of the ice milk. I can see how sieving it might make it even smoother, since you're removing air bubbles and cutting the crystallization factor.

Cost-wise, the Häagen-Dazs is $4.49 for a pint, which is two cups. My recipe made three cups, using free milk, about $2 worth of honey (I used the pricey, local beekeeper stuff), one vanilla pod (also free, courtesy of Jaden's Steamy Kitchen. Thanks, Jaden!), and four egg yolks. Whatever that costs; I haven't had enough coffee yet to do math. Plus I can use the whites in something else. So mine is much cheaper.

Sooooo, I'd say that while the Häagen-Dazs is creamy and yummy, and you should certainly try it (save the bees!), you can't go wrong making your own at home. It's equally delicious!

P.S. My goat-milk supplier has more shares available now, so if you're in Denver, particularly on the south side, email me if you're interested.

Other recently tested goat-milk recipes:
lacto-fermented sauerkraut (with an update)
Mexican chocolate pudding
Raspberry ice cream
ricotta cheese
And an excellent use for the ricotta:
ricotta torte with squash, corn and dill