Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thinking of Japan...

Despite how much Wisconsin is absorbed by local politics these days (the academic freedom of one of my mentors on the chopping block, childish GOP taunts of a local judge are on all sides, and there are upcoming State Supreme Court elections to worry about, and all the rest), our weekly Monday Night Dinner crew decided to take a culinary trip to Japan, in order to reflect on those who continue to struggle with the effects of March's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. (Donate through the Red Cross here).

Ingredients for miso soup:

Sushi rolls, with quinoa (so delicious!), roasted sweet potato, scallions, avocado, cucumber, and a toasted sesame oil-soy sauce combo.

And DU's homemade botamochi, or sweet rice balls, made somewhat in accordance with this recipe:

But since I didn't manage to capture a photo of my favorite dish of all, I thought I'd share the recipe in its place. This dish is warm and soothing, almost velvety in its consistency. It somehow managed to be mild and flavorful all at once, and to hit all the right spots on a chilly March night in Madison. Enjoy!

Soft Japanese Omelet and Bean Curd over Rice: Tofu Donburi 
from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian
8 ounces firm bean curd
Peanut or canola oil
2 cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
3 tablespoons sugar
6 eggs, lightly beaten
2 scallions, thinly sliced (both white and green sections)
1/2 cup peas (defrosted if frozen, parboiled if fresh)
2 cups Japanese short-grain rice, cooked

  1. Put the bean curd on a double layer of paper towels. Cover with another double layer of paper towels. Put a board or a large plate on top and put a 5-pound weight on top of that. Set aside for 30 minutes. Remove the weight and paper towels. Pat dry and cut into 3/4-inch squares. (I often skip this step, just squeezing the tofu with my hands and doing my best to extract as much moisture as possible. But if you have the time and inclination, definitely do the longer drying--but you can also use clean kitchen towels instead of paper!)
  2. Put 1/8 inch of oil in a 7- to 8-inch frying pan and set over medium heat. When hot, put in the bean curd pieces. Stir and fry until the pieces are golden red. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly. (I've also had success sauteing or baking the tofu (even a toaster oven sometimes!), to reduce the amount of oil needed--the key is just to get a nice firm crust on all sides, whatever method you use).
  3. Empty the frying pan (save the oil for another use) and wipe it out well. Combine the stock, soy sauce, sake, and sugar in the pan and bring to boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for a minute. Now put in the bean curd, bring to a simmer,and cook gently for 5 minutes. Now put in the bean curd, bring to a simmer, and cook gently for 5 minutes. Add the beaten eggs all at once, as well as the scallions and peas. Continue heating until the mixture begins to bubble around the edges. Cover, turn the heat down to low, and cook about 3 minutes, or until the eggs are just set. Uncover and remove from heat.
  4. Divide the cooked rice among the serving bowls. Use a large spoon to divide and lift up the solids--and some of the liquid--from the pan and lay on top of the rice. Moisten the rice with as much more of the liquid as you like and serve immediately.  Serves 3 to 4.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beer Brewing and Gluten-Free Apple Bread Pudding

While I've been making my own seitan and my own cheese and planning to cater a wedding, Justin's been thinking about trying his hand at a DIY project of his own: Beer Brewing.

The perfect opportunity arose recently when our friends HS and AS invited us over to their place for some conversation and brewing of beer.  Justin got just the right tutorial, so that now he's rarin' to go (stay tuned for a guest post from him on his first beer-brewing adventures?)

The batch we worked on for this particular incarnation was the Sven's Oatmeal Stout recipe. You can see the basic ingredients here, all from the Wine & Hop Shop in Madison:

Some malt, oats, barley, hops, and water later, HS poured in the final ingredient--yeast--before leaving the whole mixture to ferment and get all yeasty and delicious:

The other important parts of the afternoon were eating this chili that AS made, with all the trimmings:

And eating this Gluten-Free Apple-Rhubarb Bread Pudding, which I made up on the fly in order to throw together a dessert from the ingredients we had on hand that could satisfy those with a sweet tooth and with gluten intolerance, alike. The dish came together with some Gluten-Free Bread we had in the freezer, left over from the last time that my father-in-law was in town, and with some rhubarb, still frozen from our CSA box from last spring, when things like rhubarb were in season. I got some inspiration from this recipe, and then moved on from there.  My full recipe is below, in case anyone wants to re-create this dish.

Gluten-Free Apple-Rhubarb Bread Pudding
  • 4 cups Gluten-Free bread cubes
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 3 cups peeled and sliced apples
  • 2 cups sliced rhubarb
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 3/4 cups milk, either dairy or soy
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9x13 inch baking dish.
  2. In the baking dish, combine bread, raisins, apples, and rhubarb. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup brown sugar, 1 3/4 cups milk, and 1/4 cup butter. Cook and stir until margarine is melted. Pour over bread mixture.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and eggs. Pour egg mixture over bread in baking dish.
  4. Bake in preheated oven 40 to 50 minutes, or until center is set and apples are tender. Yum!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What to do with those winter vegetables?!

Celeriac? Burdock Root? Turnips? Parsnips?  What are these crazy things, how do we tell them apart, and what do we do with them?!

I've written before about the particular challenges, and pleasures, of seasonal winter cooking, but this time around, I armed myself with this knowledge and took it to the GreenHouse Make-Your-Own (MYO) Meal Night: Winter Vegetables Edition. Along with the knowledge, I took the following vegetables:
  • onions
  • kabocha squash
  • acorn squash
  • beets
  • sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes)
  • beauty heart radishes
  • sweet potatoes
  • potatoes
  • parsnips
  • turnips
  • celeriac
  • burdock root
So, the task was to take this mighty list and turn it, along with a few spices and complementary ingredients, into a full meal.

Here are the results, with recipes below. One of the good things about these recipes is that they can be modified for pretty much any winter root vegetables. Most of them are delicious grated with a vinaigrette as a salad, pureed into a soup, or roasted with or without cheese. Celebrating winter, even as spring is on the horizon!

Beet, Sunchoke, Beauty Heart Radish, White Bean, and Quinoa Salad in a Lemon Vinaigrette

Curried Squash Soup

Hearty, Cheesy Root Vegetable Gratin

Beet, Sunchoke, Beauty Heart Radish, Navy Bean, and Quinoa Salad in a Lemon Vinaigrette

3 beets
1 sunchoke
1 beauty heart radish
2 cups uncooked quinoa
1.5 cups navy beans
2 lemons
1/2-3/4 cup olive oil
5 tsp sugar
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Grate beets, sunchokes, radishes, using a food processor if you have one to speed the process. Cook the quinoa (directions here). Combine the vegetables, cooked quinoa, and drained beans in a large bowl. To make the vinaigrette, juice two lemons and, in a small bowl, combine the juice, olive oil, sugar, red wine vinegar, and the salt and pepper. Pour over the salad and adjust seasonings to taste. Serves 10-15 as a side dish.

Curried Squash Soup 

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ cups chopped yellow onions
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons curry powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 pounds squash, cut into 1 inch cubes (I used kabocha and acorn, but others would work well)
3 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup heavy cream, milk, or half-and-half

In a large, heavy pot melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, curry powder, salt, tumeric, cumin, and cayenne, and cook stirring, until fragrant, 45 seconds. Add the squash and cook, stirring for 3 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the squash is soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the heat. With a hand held immersion blender, puree on high speed. Add the cream, stir and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serves 4-6.

(My modifications for this particular meal: I tripled the recipe--except the butter--because I was feeding a crowd, and it scaled up easily.  Because I wanted to speed the cooking process, I pre-baked the squash by simply chopping each one into quarters, scooping out the seeds, putting them on some baking dishes (cut side up) at around 400 degrees F until soft, around 30-45 minutes. Then I just scooped out the cooked squash from the peel, and added it to the soup along with the broth, and reduced the cooking time for the soup).

Hearty, Cheesy Root Vegetable Gratin
2 1/2 pounds assorted root vegetables, peeled and sliced into 1/4" rounds (I used 1 sweet potato, 1 potato, 1 large parsnip, 1 turnip, 1 6" burdock root, 1 small celeriac)
1 onion
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme, oregano, and/or rosemary
1 cups grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese
Some milk, half and half, or vegetable stock, to moisten

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 dish. Place the sliced vegetables in a large bowl, and season generously with salt and pepper. Add the thyme, and toss together.
  2. Layer the vegetables in the gratin dish with the cheese.  Add the liquid until the dish is moist and you can see just a little liquid gather at the edges, season with more salt and pepper if you wish, and place in the oven on the middle rack. Bake 30-45 minutes, stirring or pressing the vegetables down with the back of your spoon every 10 minutes until the gratin is nicely browned, the vegetables are soft, and most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and serve.
(My modifications for this particular meal: I doubled the recipe and used two baking dishes.  Again, because I wanted to speed the cooking process, I pre-roasted the root vegetables by slicing them in a food processor, then putting them on some baking dishes with a little bit of water (for steaming) at around 400 degrees F until beginning to soften, around 30 minutes minutes. Then I layered the pre-cooked vegetables with the onions, herbs, and cheese, and it still took another 30-45 minutes of baking to get them as soft as I like them--melt in your mouth soft).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Self-Catering Supplies

Deciding the menu when catering is only half the battle (and definitely the fun half!). Now I have to figure out how to present all the food, how to get it all to the venue before the ceremony and reception, and how to keep it warm while it's there.

Oh yeah, and then there are those pesky issues of food safety.  Although I like to think that a lot of people in the U.S. worry way more about food safety than they need to--keeping all kinds of things in the fridge that don't really need to be there, using anti-bacterial sprays obsessively, using wasteful paper towels instead of re-using rags, etc.--there's definitely room for concern when it comes to serving lots of people food that is made in large quantities and served buffet style.  This one terrible article relays the experience of a couple (who got married the day before us) who got food poisoning at their own wedding reception, from a "tainted beef and noodle salad."  A quote from the article: “They won’t talk about it,” said Doug Ness, 30, a Bismarck, N.D., chiropractor who suffered eight days of chills, fever and diarrhea. “They don’t want their wedding to be remembered that way.” I would think not.

Chills, fever, and diarrhea are definitely things to be avoided. Especially as wedding memories.

So, the first step of having a vegetarian wedding will certainly help out in our case, as meat is most often the culprit in food poisoning outbreaks that stem from improper handling. But here are some other important questions, from the Houston Department of Health and Human Services:

Q: How will they transport the food?
A: The transportation of food, and all raw products is critical. All perishable foods must be held cold (41°F or below) or hot (140°F or above) during transit. The caterers can use refrigerated trucks, insulated coolers, warming units, etc.

Q: How will the food be kept hot or cold during the party/serving?
A: No cooked food should sit at room temperature for more than two to three hours. Cold foods must be kept at 41°F or below by using coolers, insulated containers, or on a bed of crushed ice. They can serve hot foods from chafing dishes or warming units that maintain the foods at 140°F or above.

Q: How is the caterer planning to replenish foods on buffet tables?
A: The caterer should prepare many dishes of each food to be served. The back up dishes should be kept cold or hot before serving. When the plates are empty, they should be removed and replaced with full trays. It is unsafe to add new food to a serving dish that has been out of refrigeration or hot holding.

So, here are the beginning ideas I have for all of these questions, pending how much help I can get from friends, access I have to ovens, and costs/availability of supplies from rental places:

  • I plan to keep the the room temperature foods (appetizers, salads, sides) in coolers during the ceremony, until it's appropriate to serve them, at which point they will be placed on various platters and in various bowls, with separate serving utensils.
    • I plan to borrow the coolers from friends and colleagues.
    • I plan to gather up platters, bowls, and serving utensils that I have at home, along with some that are borrowed, and others that are purchased from our favorite friendly neighborhood thrift store (I like this option better than renting because it may be about the same cost, will support a better business, and will allow us to return/re-donate these items at our leisure).
  • The hot foods are where things get a little more tricky.  The enchiladas will almost certainly be baked in full size aluminum pans (the cheap disposable kind), each of which yields about 10-12 servings or so. Unless I end up using these chafing dishes from a rental place, which I think come with their own pans. 
    • So, I can either bake the enchiladas in several rounds in my own oven, and store them in a couple of warm pan carriers until the reception at the wedding venue, when they'll be transferred to the chafing dishes (which use Sterno fuel). Or, maybe I could just bring them out and serve them without extra heating elements? They wouldn't be out more than 2-3 hours, so that seems doable. 
    • I could also buy a few pop-up chafing stands, into which the disposable aluminum pans fit easily, rather than renting the fancier versions.
    • Or, I could bake them in our oven, then transfer them to a friend's oven at low temperature, and have the friend deliver them to the wedding venue right before dinner is to be served. 
    • Or, maybe I could borrow a larger kitchen facility with more oven space and call on a friend to bake them right before delivering them to the venue? 
Any other thoughts/advice? Lots still to figure out!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wedding Menu, Revealed!

After lots of recipe-gathering and food-combination-discussing (and input from some of you), the bride and groom and I have narrowed the menu down to what is a more or less final version!

  • Deviled eggs
  • Portable caprese (mozzarella, tomato, basil on a toothpick, with oil, salt & pepper)
  • Bruschetta—some with tomato/basil, some with white bean
And the main course:
And the winning entree...

I can see the menu cards now...

[Insert noise of record scratching to a halt]...except this isn't really that kind of wedding.

So, the overall vibe is a sort of casual, farmer's market, Mexican theme.  Yum?!

Although it's true that the enchiladas may be messy, we're hoping to get by with only using one plate for the sides and entree and relying on napkins for the hand-held appetizers and desserts. 

Now, it's just a matter of finding all the necessary ingredients (where to get 60 tomatillos in April?! I'm placing my hopes on Mercado Marimar), figuring out what can be made ahead, how to divide up the tasks of cooking beans, chopping vegetables, making sauces, etc. among the friends I hope to recruit for an Anna Birthday /Wedding Food Prep Party on the Friday before the wedding.  Madison folks: stay tuned for an invitation!

I'll be back with a food safety primer and some beginning thoughts on supplies on Monday.

Happy weekend!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Catering Menu Ideas and Recipes

Ok, just two more days of catering talk this week... Hopefully this isn't totally un-interesting for those of you who have no plans to ever do this.

So, because the space we're working with doesn't have any sort of kitchen or even running water, really, the menu we feel mostly settled on includes lots of dishes that can be made in advance and that are good at room temperature.  I'm in charge of appetizers, salad, sides, and entrees, while the desserts are being made by the bride's family members (assorted make-ahead desserts like cookies and truffles and rugelech).

Here are the various options I came up with from which to choose our menu (some with links to recipes, but most out of my head):

  • Vegetarian sushi, with avocado, roasted sweet potatoes, tofu, wasabi-tamari-rice
  • Deviled eggs
  • Medjool dates stuffed with almond and fresh goat cheese
  • Salted Edamame
  • Mini pizzas with roasted vegetable toppings
  • Vegetarian meatballs
  • Roasted maple pecans
  • Portable caprese (mozzarella, tomato, basil on a toothpick, with oil, salt & pepper)
  • Tortilla pinwheels (with cream cheese and/or hummus, crunchy grated vegetables)
  • Quesadilla quarters with pepper jack and black beans
  • Stuffed mushrooms (with arugula, sun dried tomato and goat cheese?)
  • Bruschetta—some with tomato/basil, some with white bean
  • Tortilla chip scoops with salsa, hummus, pico de gallo
  • [and others from Mark Bittman's huge list here: 101 Simple Appetizers in 20 Minutes or Less]
Salads & Side Dishes
Those are just some of the ideas that swam to the surface--but they were plenty to leave me with food- and recipe-filled dreams for nights to come.

What do you all think? Recommendations, recipes, or reviews?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No (wo)man is an island

So, I have to admit that this desire to cater a wedding didn't come from nowhere. I've been thinking about weddings A LOT for the past couple of years. Sometimes, when I tell people that I've gotten really in to weddings and wedding blogs in the last two years since our own nuptials, they look at me with serious skepticism, not being able to reconcile my feminism and non-girly-ness with their image of the wider wedding world. But the thing is, there are lots of really wise, really impressive wedding blogs out there where strong women are writing about how to make a wedding meaningful, personal, and genuine without the frills and flowers and forced expectations. Where analyzing the relationship itself and thinking about gender equality and building community are way more important than princess dresses and invitation fonts and coordinating colors. Two of my favorite "wedding" blogs, which I continue to read because of the thoughtful and inspiring women who write them are A Practical Wedding (APW) and 2000 Dollar Wedding, though there are certainly lots more. 

And many of the great weddings featured on these blogs feature self-catering. Every time I read one of these wedding descriptions, I ooh and ah and wish we could've catered our own wedding. But then I think about the other factors we took into account that led us to the decisions we made around our event, and I think that everything was just right. So then I daydream instead about catering other weddings and making good food a central component of this jubilant time for the people I love.

So, here I am. Planning wedding food. 

Here are some of the posts from these blogs and others that have gotten me started with thinking about food: 

APW's How to Self-Cater Your Wedding, Part I and Part II
The full lowdown from 2000 dollar wedding on self catering
And linked from 2000 dollar wedding: A guide from The Kitchn based on a full series at Forkable

There's so much information out there--I just have to find it! 

Any other recommendations for resources?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Catering for Eighty!

So, I've recently taken on a big project that I hope to write more about in this space, with two goals: to solicit advice from you wise readers out there, and to share my experience in case others are going to be taking on a similar task at some point.

Big Project: Two of our closest Madison friends are getting married in about five weeks, and I've agreed to do most of the catering for their wedding, with 80 guests! Whew.

I have lots of cooking experience, but no experience preparing for a group of this size, so I think there will be a lot to figure out.  We have a tentative menu set, so in the next few days, I'll be reviewing the resources I found and the thought processes I went through in order to come to this menu. But I'll also be trying to figure out things like delegating tasks, buying produce, keeping the entrees hot, transporting the supplies to the venue, and more!

The basics of the situation are thus:
  • All-vegetarian menu
  • Some vegan and gluten-free options needed
  • Focus on appetizers, salads, sides that can be made ahead and can be kept at room temperature
  • Entrees that have wide appeal and can be prepared relatively easily (but tastily!)
  • No kitchen facilities of any sort on site at their venue (an partly-enclosed park pavilion)
  • Buffet style
  • Questions: How to keep things hot? Where to refrigerate all the supplies? What to use as servingware? How to serve all the food?
So, what kinds of advice are out there? Anyone done something like this before? What do I need to consider that I might not yet have taken into account? Suggestions for menu ideas?

I'll take all the help I can get!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Phoenix and Big Red

For the past week, in omelettes and egg sandwiches and baked goods, we've been enjoying these beauties, in shades of warm brown and soft blue-ish white:

And while enjoying our food, we've also thought about the beauties (both human and galline) who provided these eggs for our pleasure:
Meet Phoenix (on the left in the photo above) and Big Red (in the middle). They're a couple of fine birds, who live just a mile away from us, in a surprisingly cushy coop, where they bed down in warm straw and are fed delicious sprouts:

It's been really exciting for us to find a source for eggs that are produced by chickens tended by two of our good friends, whose chicken-raising practices are impeccable.  Finding food producers we trust so deeply is high on our list of priorities, and this has been a really welcome start on the egg front, though Phoenix and Big Red aren't quite producing enough to carry us all the way through (we'll have to wait for their family's expansion, which is scheduled to take place in April!)

Eggs occupy this really interesting place in the spectrum of vegetarian diets. People in the early phase of vegetarianism often assume that just not eating animals is enough and that eating eggs and dairy is somehow completely separate. Others, vegans among them, recognize that industrial egg and dairy operations cause a comparable level of animal suffering even without producing a food made directly of animal flesh.  This is a leap that's not always easy to make, and that requires a further critical analysis of the myriad "costs" of our food choices.

So, even though I am a vegetarian and not a strict vegan, I try to put a lot of thought into where I get my dairy and eggs (and all my food! but especially the animal products), and to stay close to sources whose provenance I really know (and not just those labeled "free-range" or "organic"--though this is a start--since these labels often don't mean very much and as Jonathan Safran Foer says in Eating Animals, "should provide no more peace of mind than 'all-natural,' 'fresh,' or 'magical'.")

But what does provide peace of mind is petting the chickens whose eggs you eat, feeding sprouts to those chickens, shaking the hands of (or giving a hug to) the humans who care for those chickens. For us, finding friends with backyard chickens is the path to that peace of mind. For those who don't have such friends, farmers' markets, Organic Valley eggs, or other local sources are a great place to start.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Butter, Mozzarella, Paneer, Oh My!

So, it turns out that making delicious mozzarella cheese is easy. And making butter is really, really easy.

Of course, it's especially easy if you have Linda Conroy, of Moonwise Herbs, and the excellent backing of F. H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture to guide you, as I did. But either way, totally do-able.

At this homemade cheese-making workshop, I learned so many things about how cheese is made--things I probably could have learned if I had paid better attention to my Mama's own cheese-making during all those years growing up (but somehow, doing things yourself seems to be way cooler now that it's part of a DIY culture than when it was just part of immigrant frugality, eh?).*

Cheesemaker Linda provided us with some incredibly high quality materials to start with: raw milk from a grassfed dairy  near her home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This, I think, is the key to why all the results turned out so well (and the only reason I felt comfortable taking in so many animal products in one afternoon).

I learned so many things: that cheese is really just whatever is left behind when the whey is removed from milk, that the kind of cheese that forms depends on timing of the heating and the coagulation, that butter milk is just what's left over when butter forms from cream, that paneer (Indian) is made with lemon juice while queso fresco (Mexican) is made with vinegar, that culturing your dairy products (all of them! not just yogurt!) makes them yummier and higher in healthy bacteria, that the yellower your butter naturally is the more clearly you can tell that your cows were grass-fed (those pigments pass right through!).

Here is (1) the rich, think, delicious cream (that had just been skimmed off the tops of the buckets of milk that Linda picked up at the dairy) being combined with a little of the Piima culture Linda brought to the workshop. Then, (2) after lots of shaking of the cream, the separation of it into butter (the yellow mass in the middle), and buttermilk (the white liquid on the outside). And (3) finally, Linda pouring off the buttermilk from the butter, so that both could be enjoyed separately.

After making butter, we moved on to our preparations for making mozzarella and paneer cheeses: squeezing lots of lemons for their juice (which my yellow-sweatered friend NR does oh-so-charmingly):

We then combined the milk with the lemon juice and a splash of prepared yogurt (in the first photo below), brought the mixture up to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, added a few drops of vegetable rennet (can be made from stinging nettles!), and then mixed until the curds and whey separated from each other. We then fully separated the curds from the whey, and heated the whey back up, way up to 170 degrees. At that point, we put the clumpy curds into the hot whey, and used two spoons to scoop and press the curds, until they started to form one solid mass. Then, using our hands and the spoons, we stretched and needed the quickly-forming mass of cheese (as seen in the third photo) until it became smooth and shiny, with no more of the graininess that had earlier characterized it.

And then, after letting the mozzarella cool, and slicing it into four chunks (and eating one of them!), we had cheese, as pictured at the top of this cutting board. (At the bottom you can see some smoked Gouda that Linda had previously made and brought for us to sample).

While we were making mozzarella, another group was making paneer cheese. From the Wikipedia page for paneer: "Paneer is a fresh cheese common in South Asian cuisine. It is an unaged, acid-set, non-melting farmer cheese or curd cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or other food acid. Unlike most cheeses in the world, the making of paneer does not involve rennet as the coagulation agent."

And indeed, the paneer was made very much like the mozzarella--with fresh milk and lemon juice--but the acid was added after the milk was already hot, rather than before, and the paneer had no rennet added.  Then, after the curds separated, they were collected, and pressed in a small pyrex dish under a heavy weight for about thirty minutes, until this beautiful specimen formed:

All in all, a really cool experience. I can't wait to have goats with a ready supply of milk so that I can start making cheese myself! Plus, baby goats are the cutest around--and no, I'm not kidding!

If anyone wants the more specific recipes for any of these dairy delights, let me know, and I can pass them on. Also, be sure to check out the Moonwise Herbs website, where you can buy Piima culture, a feta cheese kit, and all kinds of other cool Handmade Herbal Wares (like salves, lotions, creams, dried herbs, tinctures, infused oils, handmade brooms, and more!)

Has anyone else tried their hand at cheese-making?

* I don't actually think this, of course, but it sure is an interesting cultural shift, isn't it?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where are the tomatoes?

Nearly every Saturday night, Justin plays guitar and sings folk and indie songs for two hours at a sandwich chain on State Street, Potbelly Sandwich Shop. And nearly every Saturday night, we split a Big Pizza Sandwich on Wheat with no pepperoni, but with mushrooms, cheese, tomato sauce, lettuce, tomato, hot peppers, and Italian seasoning. It's the standard--the thing we always get, unchanging from week to week.

And yet, last week, I approached the Potbelly to find this sign on the front door:

And although the Potbelly was apologizing, I was jumping up and down with excitement and clapping my hands, saying yeah! Finally an acknowledgment by a chain restaurant that foods change from season to season! That there's no reason that we should expect to have the same toppings on our sandwiches, day in, day out! That our food comes from a place where it is grown in the ground (usually)! And that the ground in which this food is grown is part of a larger ecosystem, a larger environment, that is shaped by climate!

So, no tomatoes in winter! What a revolutionary, and yet super-traditional, idea!

I can't stop with the exclamation marks!

Now, if only the Potbelly would have this sign up all winter long, with an explanation of the absence of tomatoes rooted in an explanation of agriculture, seasonality, availability, distribution, and all the messy parts of bringing food from farm to table that usually stay so invisible in our world of standardized food.

Let's bring it all to light!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Make-Your-Own Burrito Night

If there's anything I've learned as a new-ish member of the H.* family's younger generation**  is that burritos are delicious.

And so I decided to convey this knowledge to the residents of the GreenHouse in the first of a series of Make-Your-Own-Meal nights that will be taking place this semester.

The full line-up looks something like this: MYO-Burritos (I'm coining a new term--let's see if it sticks), MYO-Winter-Vegetable-Dishes, MYO-Pizza, MYO-Sushi, MYO-Quiche. I'm planning on reporting back here on how all of them go.

So, for burritos, I tried to cater the ingredients as much to a winter diet as possible, choosing jarred salsas in favor of "fresh" tomatoes, thinly shredded cabbage (in the form of Mexican slaw) in favor of lettuce, and so on.

Here I am mixing up the cabbage and grated carrot and lemon juice and salt to make the slaw:

And the full spread, complete with tortillas, mexican rice (brown rice cooked with canned tomatoes and chipotle peppers), black beans, refried beans, sour cream, corn relish, pickled jalapenos, mexican slaw, pepper jack cheese, and three different kinds of salsas:

And the best part, eating!

*My husband's family
** But now no longer the youngest generation, all because of this adorable guy:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rooted in Solidarity!

This Saturday, in what was the largest rally of this protest yet (and the largest in Wisconsin history!), some of the state's farmers took to the streets, bringing their tractors to the Capitol Square in the Wisconsin Tractorcade, planned by Family Farm Defenders.

Our own Community GroundWorks (keep voting for youth gardens!) made an appearance: 

Even though farmers themselves aren't unionized, these farmers from across the dairyland brought tractors and solidarity to the Capitol to fight for labor rights and a just state budget. Rural communities will be disproportionately hurt by the cuts to education and badgercare, and farmers in Wisconsin stand with state workers, and all working and middle class families in the state. As their facebook event page said, "All farmers and eaters welcome and encouraged to come!"

And here's a video of the Family Farm Defenders vice president, Joel Greeno, on why he organized the tractorcade: 

Hooray for Wisconsin Family Farmers!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Carbonated fruit!

A small story of innovative food wizardry:

A few weeks ago, we took a break from the capitol to join a friend, EH, (actually a friend from high school who now lives in Madison), and his girlfriend who was visiting from Germany, for dinner.  They whipped us up a delicious dinner of arugula-topped pizzas, but EH told us that the best was yet to come, and that he had made a dessert for us that he was sure we'd never had before.

How could he be so sure, I wondered?  Did he know how widely I'd sampled the foods of this diverse culinary landscape of ours? Surely this dessert couldn't be *so* unusual.

And then he brought out this:

A bowl of fruit?! He thought we'd never had pineapple and grapes and kiwi?!

I decided not to say anything, to be polite, and not break his heart by telling him that I'd eaten grapes by the barrel-full in my day and that this was nothing new.

But then, I bit into a piece of pineapple explosion of tingly, bubbly sweetness like nothing I had ever tasted! This pineapple was no simple pineapple, it was--get this--carbonated! Seriously, carbonated fruit that EH had created in a carbonating machine he had built himself in order to make fizzy water inexpensively and at home.

He had used his engineering skills to build this contraption with a carbon dioxide tank, and had extended its use to fruit, much to the pleasure of my taste buds.  EH said he'd also tried this with fruit juice (yum!) and milk (not so yum) and was thinking of other things he could try.

I went home, impressed and satisfied, and then did some googling, only to find videos of how to make carbonated fruit at home even if you don't have EH's engineering skills (with dry ice), online merchants of packaged fizzy fruit, and other explorations of carbonated fruit goodness.

What's next in this crazy world? Thanks to EH and JT for the one-of-a-kind meal!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Building a Stew: Stew!

A few days ago [in blog time, that is], I began with the idea for a hearty winter stew, but not many ingredients with which to produce it. But a little seitan-making and chickpea-cooking later, I had the perfect building blocks for this pot of rich, warming stew:

Plated (bowled?), with a little grated Parmesan cheese from Farmer John on top:

My best approximation of a recipe (have you ever tried to write one of these things? It ain't easy...)

Seitan, Chickpea and Cabbage Stew 
(anyone have a better name for it?)

1 onion, peeled and diced 
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 quart jarred, diced tomatoes (about 28 oz.)
1 large broccoli stem, peeled and chopped
1 small cabbage, chopped
4 seitan cutlets, chopped into small 1/2" cubes
2 cups cooked chickpeas
3-4 cups vegetable broth and/or water
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried dill
1-2 Tbsp ketchup
1-2 Tbsp soy sauce
1-2 Tbsp hot sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. In a large pot, saute onion and garlic in 1-2 Tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat until onions start getting translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  2. Add in the carrots, tomatoes, broccoli stem, and cabbage and stir. Put the lid on, and let it steam for about 2 minutes.
  3. Add seitan, chickpeas, broth/water, and all herbs and sauces (to taste). Bring to boil and then lower heat to a simmer, for about 20 minutes, until sauce is thickened and vegetables are tender. Add salt and pepper, to taste.
  4. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Building a Stew: Pressure Cooking Chickpeas

Day 2 of Building a Stew (see Day 1 on Homemade Seitan):

In addition to seitan, I decided some chickpeas would work well with the hearty stew I had in mind. And so, I turned to our nicely-organized pantry and to my trusty pressure cooker to get the job done.  Pressure cooking is an adventure we only added to our kitchen repertoire in the last year or two, and I admit that  I've made limited use of the method so far (I'm itching to dive into this book that's been sitting on our cookbook shelf, without the attention it deserves, for the last year or so). But the one way in which it has changed our cooking life is the ability to quickly and efficiently cook dried beans, instead of buying them canned.

Even as I spend my days writing a dissertation about canned food, we've been trying to reduce actual commercially-canned food consumption in our house because it produces a lot of metal waste, it is more expensive than buying dried beans in bulk, and because of concerns about BPA (Bisphenol A, an estrogen-like chemical in plastics and in plastic can linings that leaches into food and can cause all sorts of problems).

But we eat a lot of beans, so the pressure cooker (with the help of our freezer) offers a perfect solution.  

The first step in cooking dried beans is to soak them in twice as much water as the quantity of beans you have, for at least four hours (or overnight). Chickpeas soaking:

Then, you drain your beans, put them in your pressure cooker (this is the one we have) with a tablespoon of oil and just enough water to cover the beans, seal the cooker up tight, turn your heat up to high until the pressure indicator (the little knob on top) starts to rock vigorously [think heavy metal bands from the 80s], then lower the heat until the knob rocks gently [think sixties folk music]. You cook the beans for a few minutes from this point, depending on the bean. Chickpeas need 8-10 minutes, while softer beans like black beans or kidney beans only need 2-4. Most pressure cookers come with a guide to give you specific directions.

And then you let the pressure release on its own (sometimes I get impatient and release a little pressure by poking the pressure valve with a knife--but this is probably really dangerous and may just be the end of me) before opening up the cooker. It's really a very simple process, and not nearly as scary as some sources make it out to be.

Of course, if you don't have a pressure cooker, you can just do all this the same way, but instead of cooking the beans for 5ish minutes, you cook them for a few hours. Either way.

But because I never only cook one portion's worth of food at a time, I take the food preservation one step further and cook enough beans to bag some of them up and freeze them for convenient later use.

Rather than using a freezer-style zipper plastic bag to freeze each portion of beans, I re-use plastic bags that we save from bread or english muffins or store-bought naan, putting 1.5 cups of beans in each (I find that this approximates one can of beans, for easy portioning later):

And then, instead of sealing each one of these bags individually, I twist the tops of the bags to get rid of extra air, roll them up, and put them all inside one zippered bag  (another re-use, of old tortilla bags with zip-lock tops):

And voila! Cooked chickpeas to be removed from the freezer and used at my leisure. The whole process (not including soaking) only takes about 40 minutes, much of it un-attended. Easy peasy.

Come back tomorrow to see how these chickpeas made their way into my winter stew, alongside their seitan brethren.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Building a Stew: Homemade Seitan

Last week, while I was in the market for winter meals that could be made with the last bits of hardy vegetables we still had in the fridge, I decided to keep channeling the Eastern European in me (as my mom wisely pointed out in her comment on this post), and create some sort of hearty stew with what we had on hand: cabbage, carrots, a bit of broccoli stem, some jarred tomatoes.

But I realized it would be nice to have a bit of protein and something with some chewiness to it in this stew, and so I turned to two methods, one new and one old. Today, I'll be profiling the new method (making my own seitan!); tomorrow, the old method (pressure cooking chickpeas); and then on Friday, I'll show how it all come together to make this pot of satisfying stew:

So, for those of you who haven't heard of seitan, it's basically a protein-rich food made from the gluten of wheat.  Wheat gluten is just the protein-rific part of wheat flour that provides that pleasing stretchiness to dough. Unfortunately, it's also the part of wheat that some people (including my father-in-law) have allergies or intolerance to. However, if you're not averse to gluten, it's a great source from which to make nice, chewy seitan.

I had eaten seitan in restaurants, and had bought it pre-prepared, but had long wanted to make it myself, because I had heard it was easy, inexpensive, and satisfying. So, I basically just used a combination of this guide (the recipe for Quick Homemade Seitan is about halfway down the page), and the recipe for Simple Seitan from one of my favorite cookbooks, Veganomicon.

Unless you want to make it yourself (by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch dissolves, leaving insoluble gluten as an elastic mass), the easiest way to begin the process of making seitan is to buy some Vital Wheat Gluten Flour (I used some I bought in bulk at the co-op, but I know Bob's Red Mill makes a good version).
Then, this is the approximate recipe I followed, based on the ingredients I had on hand (see the recipe links in the paragraph above for more ideas).

Simple Seitan, Zeide-Style

2 cups vital wheat gluten flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 1/4 cup cold vegetable broth (or mixture of broth and water)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

3 cups broth plus 3 cups water
1/4 cup soy sauce
3-inch piece of kombu (a type of seaweed)
3-4 slices ginger (optional)

  1. Mix together the gluten flour, ginger, and nutritional yeast in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, mix together the veggie broth, soy sauce, and oils.  Pour the wet into the dry and stir until most of the moisture has been absorbed. Use your hands to knead the mixture for about 3 minutes, until the dough is elastic.  
  2. Let the dough rest 2 to 5 minutes, then knead it a few more times. Let it rest another 15 minutes before proceeding.
  3. Cut gluten into 6 to 8 pieces and stretch into thin cutlets. Simmer in broth for 45 to 60 minutes, partially covered.  Turn off the heat and take the lid off; let it sit for 15 minutes.  
  4. Remove from the broth and place in a strainer until it is cool enough to handle.  It is now ready to be sliced up and used.  If you have extra seitan, store in  the cooking liquid in a tightly covered container. It can also be frozen, either with or without the cooking liquid. To use after freezing, simply let thaw in refrigerator for 1-2 days before use.
This is what it looked like in the simmering in the broth stage:

And here are the seitan cutlets, after they've been cooked and have cooled (not the most beautiful little guys, but supremely versatile):

On the whole, I'm not sure if I simmered them long enough, or if they ended up the right texture--I've read that you shouldn't let them boil for more than a minute or two before turning the heat down to a simmer or they'll get rubbery, but I was very happy with my first attempt. Seitan is like tofu in that it soaks up the flavors of what's around it, but I think I could have made it a little more flavorful from the outset, by including more herbs and maybe some salt and pepper in with the initial wheat gluten flour. The great thing is you can pretty much include any flavorings, sauces, or spices that you'd like, in order to alter the taste of your final product. Mexican seitan made with salsa and chipotle peppers? Italian seitan made with pesto and parmesan? The possibilities are endless!

I froze half of these cutlets (four of them) in their broth for later use.  Come back on Friday to see what I did with the remaining four to make them part of my winter stew...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Youth Grow Local Conference

This past weekend, I was able to participate in the Community GroundWorks (CGW) Youth Grow Local Conference. I've written about CGW before (and yes, the online voting is still going on, through April 3!), and although they provide an amazing array of agricultural and community-building services to Madison, this Youth Grow Local conference is always among the most inspiring for me. This conference brings together people from all across Southeastern Wisconsin to talk about growing food with young people.  The conference website (a quick little google site that I built) lists the following as the highlights of the event:
  • Learn how to start and maintain a school or community youth garden
  • Network with others who are involved in the youth gardening movement
  • Attend expert panels designed to assist both beginning and experienced gardeners
  • Learn a variety of lesson plans and hands-on activities to use in your garden
  • Meet public health professionals involved in researching and promoting youth gardening 
And indeed I was able to do all this and much more!  Because I was a room host for the event, I spent most of the morning in this space, learning about "Resources for Your Youth Garden," and "Hands-on Garden Activities":

Where I also got to eat awesome snacks from the REAP Farm to School program (beauty heart radishes, jicama, carrots, raw sweet potatoes, red peppers):

And got to browse an amazing library of books related to gardening and youth gardening--I've listed a few of my favorites below (click on the individual books to see the full Amazon profiles). If you'd like more recommendations on any of these topics, let me know, as I have a full list.

I also got to learn about this really useful service the University of Wisconsin offers, where they'll test your soil for a very small fee and let you know if it's contaminated with anything and what steps to take to remediate it. If you're gardening in urban areas, this is especially important, because the history of your land may include all kinds of things that you don't know about, but that could bring contaminants into your garden. For more info on the UW service, see their site here. If you're in other states, check with your own state universities to see if they have a similar service available. 

I also audio-recorded most of the sessions, so if you're interested in attending after the fact from afar, those recordings will be available online and I can report back here if anyone would like.

Very happy to have been part of this event once more!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Birthday Hot Pot

Last week, one of Madison's finest turned 30, and so to celebrate her day, we took her on an outing for authentic Chinese food, which began with a campus walk that included collage puzzle pieces* and surprise encounters with friends.

Once we reached Fugu, the restaurant, we were disappointed to discover that our favorite dish, the mushroom hot pot, was unavailable. But, thanks to some expert ordering by our favorite union organizer, KG, we ended up with way more than we [collectively] bargained for.

Within a short time, the waiters had brought over big beautiful steaming pots, two for our table, that they set on burners. Both pots were divided in two, with a deep red chili-infused broth, and a lighter broth with tomatoes and scallions and some sort of red fruits floating in it.

Soon, the central pots were also joined by a variety of delicious additions: fried tofu, long skinny white mushrooms, fresh spinach (all seen below), plus fresh tofu blocks, daikon radishes, bean leaves, and more.

All of this is part of a dish common to Chinese cuisine, known generically as hot pot. When we heard that they didn't have our mushroom hot pot available tonight, KG convinced the chefs to bring a version of the dish with whatever ingredients were on hand.  Judging from the presence of other hot pots on the tables of other restaurant patrons who were speaking Chinese (visible in the top right corner of the photo below), we figured we'd gotten the inside scoop on one of the hits that this restaurant has to offer, but doesn't feature prominently on its regular menu.

The hot pots, birthday cheer, and good company made for an exciting dining experience that reminded me what restaurants can be good for: creating a cuisine and ambiance that can't be had at home. Whenever I'm served something at a restaurant that I know I could've made myself (usually for less money and with better ingredients!) it always feels like such a waste. But this time, Fugu served up the real restaurant experience--exposing us to flavors and ways of eating that were so gratifying in their unfamiliarity.

And they even brought the birthday girl a deep fried ball of green tea ice cream with a candle!

Happy Birthday, my friend!

*When all the puzzle pieces came together, they added up to this collage of some events and sightings of the past year: