Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Countless Uses for Kefir Grains

A few months ago a friend of mine gave me just over a teaspoon of kefir grains.  I have practiced several different forms of fermentation over the past several years.  I've made home made sour cream, yogurt, kombucha, and kim chee.  I can honestly say that kefir is the easiest and most dynamically useful fermentation that I have played with.  It is also the easiest.  As I just gave some kefir grains to some other friends I thought it would be worth while to writeup my process for creating kefir, and the various ways that I process it.

First a teaspoon of kefir grains is enough to culture about a cup of milk over the course of a couple days.  If you use warm milk the process goes more quickly, but the kefir grains and milk can both be cold when you combine them, and everything will still culture correctly.  The culture needs to breath while it is cultivating.  To accomplish this I culture my kefir in a mason jar with a 2 layers of cheesecloth held in place by a mason jar ring.  However, the friend who first gave me his culture just left the lid loose on his kefir jars and never ran into any problems.  After a day you will want to taste your kefir to see if it is as sour as you would like it.  When the culture tastes how you would like it to taste then you strain out the grains.  I generally put the grains back into the mason jar that I did the culturing in, replace the cheesecloth with a normal lid and put the culture in the fridge till I am ready to use it again.  The culture is very hearty and I haven't had any problems leaving it for a week or longer between cultures.  Every few batches I rinse the grains off to avoid too much milky solid buildup.

If you let the culture go long enough it will become a full yogurt consistency at which point the curd will separate from the whey of the kefir.  This isn't necessarily a problem, and I often strain the whey for use in other products such as bread.  However, when you have a thick product it is difficult to get the kefir grains out without damaging them.  I take a fine mesh strainer and put the liquid in to it and then take a spoon or butter knife and run it sideways across the bottom of the strainer.  It's important to keep the side of the spoon vertical as opposed to angled so you don't push the grains down into the strainer making your product lumpy, and damaging the culture.  If you do this regularly it will breakup your grains, but as long as they aren't actually pushed through the strainer it won't cause any problems with future batches.

That is a basic rundown of how I make kefir.  It's nearly impossible to messup a batch.  The worst you can do is let it go "too long" and have it fully separate when you wanted a lightly sour smooth batch.  It's still a wonderful product, just a little different.  Kefir can stand in for buttermilk in all of it's uses.  I've used kefir to make buttermilk biscuits, pancakes, and even as a base culture for sour cream.  The sour cream turns out a bit less nutty and a bit more yogurt like than when you use buttermilk, but it still works in pretty much all the same ways. I've also strained the whey as a I said above and used it to make bread.  If you get a particularaly thick batch it eats almost exactly like yogurt.  We got through a ridiculous amount of kefir every week in my house, and I highly recommend this to anyone who's up for making some.  As I just gave out some culture it will be a little while before I have more to spare, but I'm sure I'll be able to give some away in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Montezuma's Orange

So this is an absolutely brilliant drink my partner came up with last night on a whim.  I told him he had to send it to me so I could put it up in the hopes that someone else could experience it's wonder.  It's stupid simple, but wonderful in a way that I can't even express in words.

3 parts Godiva chocolate cream liqueur
1 part Cointreau
4-8 drops habaƱero tincture

Directions: pour, pour, drip, stir, drink

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Vegan Jambalaya

So I made this for a gaming get together with my friends the other night.  It was a throw things together kind of meal, but one of my friends asked for the recipe, so I tried to recreate what I did and figured I might as well post it here.  If anyone tries it let me know if any of it doesn't make sense or generally what you think.  I haven't really proofed the text, so it might be a bit rough.

2 cups brown long grain rice
1 cup lentils
6 cups water or salt free vegetable stock
1 onion
3 medium carrots
3 medium celery stalks
8 oz crimini mushrooms
1 bell pepper diced
1 zucchini diced
3 cloves garlic
2 cans of fire roasted tomatoes
a large pinch of oregano
a large pinch of thyme
hot sauce to taste
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to just coat the bottom of pan

Saute your garlic and onion in a pan with the olive oil on high heat
until they start to brown and coat the bottom of the pan in a light
fond.  Then toss in the chopped carrots, and the herbs and continue to
toss until the fond develops into a medium dark color.  Deglaze the
pan with your water or salt free veg stock.  Rinse and go over your
lentils and add them to the simmer water and cook for 10 minutes.
Then add the rice and mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes or so.  Then
add the celery and cook for another 10 minutes.  Then add the
zucchini, bell peppers, canned tomatoes, salt and hot sauce to taste.
Simmer until the lentils and rice are tender.  If the mixture dries
out before the rice and lentils are as tender as you would like just
add additional water.  If you didn't have sodium free veg stock, but
want the veg flavor add veg bullion instead of salt in the final
stage, you just don't want to add salt until the lentils are done
cooking.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Infusions: Coffee

So somehow I missed doing a blog post on coffee flavored infusions back when that was my focus.  Someone asked me for the recipe for a coffee liqueur I did for a party a couple months ago and I figured I'd point them to my blog post . . . NO BLOG POST!!!  So here we go.

Coffee is a classic infusion flavor.  It is bright, brings some caffeine to the party, though in more natural quantities than those hopped up alcoholic energy drinks (shudder), and is among the most classic of flavors.  It's earthy, deep, slightly bitter, yet incredibly smooth when carefully balanced.  Unlike most other ingredients I've posted about there is quite a bit of complication in choosing your source ingredients.  Ginger is more or less ginger, blueberries are more or less blueberries and so on and so forth.  Certainly quality varies, but for the most part you either have "great fruit" or "mediocre fruit".  Coffee on the other hand comes in myriad varieties and beyond the basic quality concerns of freshness there is roast preference, the type of beans you prefer, how ground you want your beans to be, etc. etc.  Really it's all the same variables that go into a great cup of coffee, only applied to alcohol extraction instead of water extraction.  There is no "best bean" you will need to experiment a bit to find out what you like the most.  That said here are the things I recommend:

Go Dark: I like my coffee fairly nutty, but I like my coffee infusion to be fairly dark.  The alcohol doesn't take out much of the carbon bitterness of dark coffee, but it does take out the carmelization in the bean's sugars and the complex flavors that develop.  I've made some delicious liqueur from Turkish and espresso coffee.  That said a more moderate if still somewhat dark full city roast might bring a set of flavors to the party that you prefer.  As with all things, experiment.

Go Fresh: This I cannot emphasize enough.  Coffee gets stale over time, and depending on the nature of the coffee that time can be very brief indeed.  At one point, just to see if it would work I got the leftover espresso grounds from a local coffee shop and made liqueur out of them.  To explain what this is about, when you make a GOOD shot of espresso you overload your mechanism and then pack everything down.  This results in some of the grounds falling out.  It's just part of pulling a good shot.  Some techniques waste more or less coffee, but they all waste some grounds.  The liqueur I made tasted delicious, but for the first couple months of it's existence it smelled a bit like the garbage can.  I couldn't figure it out, but it was very disconcerting.  I do know that when coffee is ground that fine, and left out exposed to the air it goes stale very very quickly, and I've never had a similar effect with fresh coffee.  So go fresh, and avoid the smell of compost in your liqueur.

Ratios: I recommend about a cup of grounds to a 5th of liquor, though to be honest I rarely measure, so that is a very rough estimate.  You can't really let this infuse too long.  The joy of a cold alcohol infusion in coffee is it doesn't bring out all those unpleasant volatile bitter compounds that you find in a hot brew of the bean.

Flavor Profile: We've all had coffee.  This will be a somewhat less round version of the flavor, and much less bitter that a hot brew.  It can be slightly nutty, very deep, and excellent with all things cream, much like a normal cup of Joe.  The most traditional flavor to go with coffee liqueur is probably vanilla.  Kahlua is coffee and vanilla.  It's a sure fire hit.  Other good flavors are cacao, cinnamon, cardamom (hmmm Turkish Liqueur), and really any deep earthy spice.  As always experiment and see what strikes your fancy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

One Does Not Simply REMOVE One's Self from the Supply Chain

As I wrote a couple posts ago about the choices we make and the supply chain I realized that I wouldn't really be able to complete my point.  I could talk about the importance of removing oneself from the supply chain, but I couldn't really talk about how to do it without being entirely too verbose for a single post.  So here is my followup.  This is where politics and Betty Home Maker, or Benjamin Home Maker merge in my mind.

First I just have to say that it's not practical to cut one's self off from our society or economy entirely.  It just can't be done in a way that most people can achieve.  Instead one can work bit by bit, piece by piece to minimize your dependency on the systems of the world we live in.

Being that this is a food blog and given that I said food is the part of our lives where this is most important I feel I must start there.  I believe that our dependency on the supply chain for food is more important than any other aspect of our lives because food is the one thing we get from the supply chain that is not ever an option.  We don't always need medical care, we can survive with a backpack's worth of clothing, we don't need cable, or internet, or gaming consoles.  They are all either luxuries, or only necessary at certain times of year or periodically.  Those needs can be anticipated and planned around.  So while the supply chain's control over those things is significant it's not like food.  A lack of food will kill, either slowly or in some cases quickly.  It will prevent brain development in children, it will cause disability in adults.  It makes us ravenous, and angry.  Hunger destroys reason, and stunts the development of children, including vital brain development.  It is for these reasons that I believe that food is the most important dependency we have on the supply chain, and the one which we must apply the most focus to breaking.

As I said above we must go about breaking that dependency a piece at a time.  A person cannot go from eating out almost every day to making all of their food from scratch.  Instead you can look at how you go about eating now and pick up one new food related hobby, or learn one new recipe that you never knew before.   The best thing about this process is that it lends itself to a social structure.  You can use sites like http://www.dabble.co to connect and find affordable educational opportunities.  You can cook with friends on a regular basis, or just bum around the internet looking for trouble to get into in your kitchen and it can all seem terribly entertaining, but over time it develops into something more substantial.

I will throw out a couple very simple things you can do to start off.  Learn to make krauts.  My local food coop uses the term Kim Chee, but Kraut is a bit more accurate.  You can easily make a home made condiment at home from raw vegetables by shredding them, salting them, spicing them and then pressing them into a large recently cleaned glass container to ferment.  The process is incredibly simple and there are several wonderful resources out there to learn more (here is a good example).  Add in almost any vegetable you can think of and replace the seasonings with whatever you like and you're in the fermented relish business.  My house recently went vegetarian and lunch is often cheese sandwiches with copious kraut thrown in for flavor, live enzymes and easy to access vegetable nutrients.

So with that small hobby that can allow for great creative expression via food you can allow yourself to stop buying most relishes, as you can make kraut style relishes easily.  You can cut out a decent amount of meat consumption even if you don't go entirely vegetarian, and you've just begun to crack the door on realizing how much you can do for yourself.

You can replace complex cleaners with vinegar, water and a dollar store spray bottle in the kitchen.

You can look for pasta sauces that are sold in mason jars (the safeway generics often are, just as an FYI) and re-use the jars instead of buying your own or using Tupperware.

The options go on and on.  One little thing at a time.  The best part is most of these techniques are beneficial to you.  They save you money and give you a little bit more control over your own life and fulfillment as you go.

Everything I've listed above are things I do in day to day life, and I certainly do other things to try and keep a level of independence from the corporate supply chain.

I read financial news on a fairly regular basis because I'm a strange breed of geek.  One thing I've seen consistently is that pay is starting to creep up again, but consumer spending is not.  The people at the top of the system are starting to take notice and they are worried that people aren't spending even though they are starting to make a little bit more money again.  Well for one thing the "more money" that is being made is crumbs at best.  The other thing that not enough people are talking about is that as a generation we have been profoundly impacted by this recession.  My grandparents survived the Great Depression and that experience informed every aspect of their lives and the way they chose to live it.  They were industrious and knew how to do for themselves in ways that our parents' generation did not.  Now though we are at another cross roads where we have to learn to take care of ourselves, and we may well have learned similar lessons. 

When you purchase everything pre made for you the money creeps to the companies that provide that service.  When things crash no one has the skills necessary to adjust, tighten the belt and start doing for themselves again.  It's critical we re-learn that lesson, and along the way we just might start to extract some of those resources from the top of our system again, simply by not feeding the money we have back into it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kim Chee . . . or is it Kraut?

So, I was visiting a friend and told her about the Kim Chee that I learned to make at the Edible Alchemy Kim Chee class taught by the ever inspiring Andrea.  She wanted me to send her directions, and I figured that it would be more helpful to write it out on the blog so that any of my friends who are not part of the EA community can get to it as well.  For the record I cannot possibly put together as solid a description as what Andrea does in her playshop.  If you see a Kim Chee playshop go up on Dabble or the Edible Alchemy site TAKE IT!  This post might get you started, but it's just not the same.

Notes about the term "Kim Chee": So a more accurate term would be Kraut, but that isn't quite right either.  Kraut implies something specifically German, and the flavorings described will be kind of all over the place.  Traditional Kim Chee is made with fish sauce, and sake.  This process is much more like Saurkraut, only with more asian spices . . . or Indian spices . . . well ok so really whatever the hell you want to put in.

Equipment for "Kim Chee"

A large glass container.  This can be a wide mouth ball jar, or similarly large mouth glass jar, but if I'm making a truly large batch I prefer something more in the gallon size.  I use a large ball jar when I'm making german saurkraut because we don't go through it as quickly, but if I'm doing a more central Asian flavored kraut I pull out the big honkin glass jug I bought at Pier One for fermenting vegetables.

A "plate" or other flat surface that can fit inside the mouth of the fermenting jar referenced above.  This is important for weighting down everything.  For my large glass fermenting jug I use a medium sized ramekin for this purpose most of the time.  It's just large enough to put my weight into.

A weight.  This will be put on top of your flat "plate" to keep your vegetation under the liquid of the fermentation mixture.  For me this is usually a bottle or jar that is smaller than the mouth of my fermentation jug.  If I'm doign my big jug it's a mason jar filled with water, if I'm fermenting in a mason jar it's usually a 5 oz hot sauce jar filled with water.

A BIG bowl.  I can't emphasize this enough.  No matter how big you think your bowl is you probably need a bigger one unless you're just doing a ball jar size batch.  You need a lot of room to mix, but the vegetables will pack down into a much smaller space than you mixed them in.

A "smasher".  This can be a big spoon, or the handle of a whisk.  It needs to be broad enough to really be able to smash down your vegetation, and sturdy enough to handle a lot of force.  Wooden tools work well here.

Ingredients for Kim Chee

Vegetables, especially cabbage and it's decendants.  So the vegetation that can go into fermentations can vary a lot.  You want something hearty enough to handle the fermentation without completely breaking down, but as everything is going ot be raw you have a fair bit of leeway on this one.  I always use at least some straight up cabbage because it's incredibly cheap, good for you, and develops a lot of excellent flavor as it ferments.  I also almost always include carrots.  Beyond that I have used garlic ramps, onions, zucchini, kale, kolrabi greens, collard greens, garlic, beet greens, turnips, mustard greens, and a few other things that I don't remember at the moment.  I know other people who have used broccoli, cauliflower, beets, nappa cabbage, every other hearty green you can think of etc. etc. etc.  You can also add apple,  and other hearty fruits that give it a slightly sweet kick and change the makeup of the fermntation food quite a bit.  I have to say I am a particular fan of using apple and garam masala for fermentation.

Seasoning.  So here things get completely wacky.  You can use basically whatever you want.  Just remember to use A LOT OF IT.  What I have discovered is that the fermentation process subdues the flavors of the spices you put into your kim chee quite a bit.  If you taste your mixture of vegetables, salt and spices and it tastes about right you're not done adding spices because it will just taste like lacto ferment pickle when you're done and that's about it.  I would say the core spices to use here are hot pepper flake (kim chee traditional), mustard seed (saurkraut traditional) garlic, and maybe dill if you want a really old fashioned pickle taste.  Beyond that the sky is the limit.  I really like tumeric in my fermentation, and I'm planning on picking up some fresh tumeric for my next batch.  Ginger is absolutely amazing.  I did Recaito in my last batch, and when it was fresh it smelled and tasted a lot like salsa.  Unfortunately when it was done it tasted just kind of like lacto ferment.  Which was nice, but not as exciting as I'd hoped for.  So if you go the cilantro route, go completely fresh and use a whole bunch.  You can't really overdo it.  If anyone makes some of this and is really blown away by their spice combination please post in the comments, because I'm always looking for new inspiration for my ferments.

Salt.  So this is the magick ingredient.  Salt does two things, it creates an environment that is very pleasant for the wild lacto bacteria that live on the skin of the vegetables we're going to use and an environment that is very inhospitable to the bacteria we don't want to develop.  For a big bowl of vegetables that will fill 3+ large mason jars you want at least 3-4 Tbsp of salt, but really there's no magic amount of salt.   You just want the veg mix to taste incredibly salty, and for there to be enough salt to cause the vegetables to seep out their moisture.  That moisture should be all the pickling and fermentation liquid you need.

The Process:

So first you shred your vegetables.  I use a mandolin because it makes things go faster.  You can also just chop them roughly, or dice them into a fine relish.  This is entirely a matter of personal taste.  The one thing to remember here is the finer you chop it the easier it's going to be to squeeze all the liquid out.  If you want a really REALLY chunky ferment, like bordering on hunks of pickles kind of ferment you might need to add some water, and that brings some extra concerns to play, but I'll talk on that a little later.

Next you take your veg and put it into your huge bowl and add your salt and spices.  Again, remember go heavy on the spices.  While I've had some people point out that you can't take spices out once you put them in this is going to be a pickle.  It's a condiment to begin with.  If it's super hard core when it's finished, that just means you use it a bit more sparingly.  If it isn't flavorful when it's done then you're kind of bonked.  Once the spices and salt are added mix everything up.  The best tool for this is your hands.  You can impecably clean them, or you can wear gloves.  For me this depends on if I have a lot of spices in the mix like curry or straight up tumeric that will stain my hands.  If I do I use gloves, if not I go bare.

This step should cause the veg to become very moist as the salt begins to sap the moisture out of the vegetable matter.  You can make a point of squeezing your veg to help things along here.  If your veg is being very resilient to giving up it's water start to smash it in the bowl with your smasher, and if it still seems dry you probably need more salt.  Just keep adding salt until things start to moisten up.

Next you want to pack your mixture into your freshly cleaned glass fermentation jug.  Put a layer down and use your smashing device to really pack it down.  Then do another layer and smash, repeat until all your veg is packed in.  This process might take a while, but it's worth it.

Next set your plate or other large flat surface down on the top of your veg and put the weight on top of it.  Push down, a LOT. The goal here is the squeeze your liquid to the top of your vegetation.  You will need to also push any stray vegetation under the liquid that comes up during this process.  Vegetation that is exposed to the air, is vegetation that can develop off bacteria.  You want everything under your liquid.  Once you have pushed most of your liquid to the surface, and everyting is well covered put a towel on top of your mixture and leave it somewhere to ferment.  The towel will keep fruit flies, and dust and other unplesant things out of your kraut, while still allowing air in, which is necessary for the fermentation to happen.

After a couple days the fermentation should start.  Things will begin to smell a little funky, which is perfectly ok.  Funk is part of the process.  If you look down into your veg you should see bubbles start to develop within the first few days.  When this starts happening you will want to occasionally push down on your weight to get the bubbles to come to the surface.  Once every couple of days will do the trick.  After about a week you should start tasting your kraut.  When it tastes the way you want it to, move it to mason jars and put in the fridge.  Once you chill it the fermentation will slow down and you will be able to "capture" the flavor more or less where you want it.

A note on sterilization: So this is a wild fermentation, so despite what a lot of guides say I don't worry about fermenting things.  I wash all of my vegetables, and I always do a very fresh clean on my fermentation jug, but I don't go through a detailed sterilization process, because the vegetables aren't sterile and you leave them raw . . . so it's just not a sterile environemnt.  The whole point of kraut is to use wild bacteria and use the salt content to discriminate between the good and bad bacteria.  That said I make sure everything goes through a wash right before I use it.

A note on metal tools.  You really REALLY don't want metal to be in contact with your ferment while it's active because the fermentation produces acid and it will extract metal into the vegetables and taint the mixture.  So I avoid using mason jar lids for the flat surface that I put my weight on, because there is metal.  However, several guides online tell you to mix your vegetables in a non metal bowl.  I don't have any non metal bowls large enough to do kraut in, so I mix mine in stainless steel and I've never had any problems.  There is no acid until the bacteria has had a couple days to do it's work, so I can't think of a single sound scientific reason why doing your initial mixing in metal would be a problem.

A final note on MOLD!!!!!!!!  Mold terrifies a lot of people who do kraut. Do not worry about it.  For one thing you probably don't have mold on your mixture, especially if it's been fermenting for a while.  The liquid gets acidic because of the wild lacto bacteria doing their work, and members of kindom fungi really don't like acidic environements.  What you will probably develop on top of your kraut is a while foamy stiff mixture which can seem a bit like mold, but is really just part of the bacterial process.  A lot of guides say to scrape this off.  I won't lie, I've mixed it in before to absolutely 0 detrimental effect.  If I were doing a very long ferment, and I got a lot of it I would scrape it off.  Andrea who taught me how to make kraut said at one point she had a batch where the top inch or so got "moldy" and discolored and she just discarded the top inch of vegetables and the rest of the batch was absolutely amazing.  I completely and totally believe this to be true.  This is a live WILD fermentation.  Don't expect completely controlled conditions.

Oh right one more note on health benefits.  This stuff is absolutely amazing for your gut.  We need good bacteria in our digestive system.  I make a point of eating even more kraut then usual when I have an antibiotic forced on me . . . it happens, I hate it.  The kraut helps get things going again.  I like going the kraut route more than yogurt or even pro biotic pills because consumer fermented produces all have very limited strains of bacteria, and only go so far in terms of repopulating our digestive ecosystem, and make no mistake it's a complex ecosystem.  I like having some wild ferment mixed in there to round out the population.  I certainly still use pro biotics and yogurt, especially after an antibiotic cycle.  It makes a huge huge difference.

Uses for this stuff.  The sky is honestly the limit.  I love it on cheese sandwiches, as a topping on curry, in soups.  A lunch favorite around my house is to take two pieces of bread, and put shredded cheese on them, pop them in the toaster oven until they are very melty, and then take them out, add kraut and put them together into a sandwich.  The result is a perfect krauty grilled cheese.  The nice thing about adding the kraut at the end is you get all the best flavors of the nice melty cooked cheese, but since the kraut isn't sitting in the toaster oven, or in the sandwich on the grittle it isn't going to get super duper hot, and the raw enzymes from the vegetables and developed during the fermentation don't completely break down.  I like to get as many of those in my diet as possible.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Smoked Vegan Feast Playshop

I am running a playshop on smoking in an urban environment with everyday equipment.  I have included a link at the end of this post to the handout I am giving my students.  I'm hoping to do a writeup on how the class goes and possibly take some pictures as I go.  We'll see.  In general I just wanted to make this available to everyone who might want to take a look.  My cooking and "recipe" construction tend to be a bit ad hoc.  These playshops have been forcing me to think about how I cook in a somewhat more structured manner.  It's a challenge, but I've enjoyed it.  Try the stuff in here out and let me know what you think.

Warning: The handout doesn't talk about controlling heat on your stove to keep the chips from going completely over the top.  I am going to be demoing in class so that's why it's not in the handout.  If you're experimenting with this, like I originally did I recommend going for very low heat at first.  It won't be enough, but it's better to slowly creep the heat up until you have a nice slow steady smoke than smoke out your whole house.

The Handouthttps://docs.google.com/document/d/1Up2xOrk8A4lcdtkVk0d7c45EAcNNf8oxN_1YreWGoMI/edit