Friday, June 24, 2005
I’ve become completely entranced by- and infatuated with kefir.
Having been raised on hippy vegetarian food, I was familiar with kefir from early on. Always Alta-Dena brand, preferably strawberry, although my Dad favored the boysenberry. It’s basically like yogurt with a consistency like a thin milkshake. Tasty. Apparently it’s an acquired taste though. My wife Vikki can’t stand the stuff. She says if it tastes like yogurt is shouldn’t be drinkable. Just wrong.
Anyway, I’ve always been a fan. And lately I’ve been reading the odd article on the wonders of “probiotic” foods, a.k.a. those foods that contain live bacteria that are supposed to be living in our guts. “Intestinal flora” as they say. These can be wiped out by antibiotics and all the preservative-heavy food in the modern American diet, which leads to all kinds of problems. So now you can buy “probiotic” yogurt and kefir, presumably with extra bacteria. Or you can take “probiotic” bills that contain dried bacteria. It’s all good.
So back to kefir. I’d always assumed that kefir was just yogurt that had been mixed up with stuff until it was runny. And for many commercial brands that may in fact be the case. But “traditional” kefir is made quite differently from yogurt. It comes from the Northern Caucasus originally, and has been known historically around that region. The word “kefir” itself comes from Turkish apparently. The secret is what are called “kefir grains”. These are actually little colonies of a bunch of lacto-bacteria with some yeasts that form little balls (the “grains”). These balls grow and divide naturally until they look kind of like a cauliflower. The kefir making process is quite simple. You acquire a set of grains from somewhere, and stick them in a jar of milk at room temperature for around 24 hours. They you pour your newly cultured kefir through a strainer to recover the grains for the next batch. Very cool.
I had to try it, so I got some starter grains on eBay and started production. It looks like there are several suppliers who sell on eBay, or you can try G.E.M. Cultures (www.gemcultures.com). There are also kefir-grain-sharing networks that you can find on the internet. The grains grow quite quickly, so pretty soon you have more than you can handle, which is a good time to give some to a friend (or apparently to sell them on eBay). I’ve only had my grains for a week, and with one batch a day, the grains have more than doubled in size.
The taste is not nearly as sour as I would have guessed. Fresh from the 24 hour culturing cycle the flavor is very mildly yogurt-ish, with a very slight taste of yeast. It makes great smoothies, and is good on cereal. If you like that kind of thing. You can “cure” it further if you want it more sour, but I haven’t tried that yet. You can also get it to carbonate, which sounds pretty fun. I’ll have to try that soon. Also, supposedly the little critters are just as happy in soy or even coconut milk, which could be interesting.
For more information on kefir than most people could possibly absorb, check out Dom’s Kefir in-site. Highly informative, with lots of tips and tricks, and recipes.
Monday, June 13, 2005
After musing about bread the other day, this weekend I hauled out and dusted off the old bread machine. Not counting the recent pizza incident, I haven’t done any baking at all in years. I think maybe it’s time again. I made a loaf of 100% whole wheat, mostly to see how it would come out. Not bad overall. A bit heavy, but as I recall from days of old, bread takes practice. I just got some “white whole wheat” flour, so maybe I’ll try another batch with that and see how it compares. The loaf I did make went very well with a batch of lightly curried lentil soup with ham. The weather’s been pretty crummy around here lately, so soup seemed like a good bet. Worked out pretty well. I used French green lentils, which I really like for soup because they hold their shape very well, unlike red lentils which turn to mush. The regular brown ones hold out OK, but they tend to be a bit squishier. The green ones stay more distinct.
Sunday morning I made a batch of yeast-risen pancakes. (Can you tell I’m on a baking kick?) Again, I think some practice is involved, but the kids wolfed down enough of them to make me think they weren’t too bad. I think the next steps in this direction are to get a sourdough starter going, and to crank up the old grain mill. It, too, has been languishing lately, and I think I finally have a table I can reliably attach it too. Nothing like freshly ground buckwheat pancakes. And since you have to work for them, they are all the sweeter.
Friday, June 10, 2005
This isn’t too food-related I guess, but it struck me as really funny, and well informed. The guys at w00t are selling a bread machine today, and their copy starts thusly:
The ancient Egyptians knew the value of warm, wholesome bread. No gooey, cakelike Wondercrud for them – they’d sow, tend and harvest the wheat, and then grind and pound it into a fine flour, and finally bake it for hours in clay moulds on an open hearth. The inevitable tiny stones and grains of sand baked into the bread ravaged the teeth of the Coptic panophiles, hastening tooth decay and, ultimately, death.
But not for you. Thanks to the Salton Breadman TR4000 Ultimate Dream Machine Breadmaker, you can smother yourself in fresh, pliant bread with little more effort than it takes to make a cup of coffee. [w00t]
I’ve been thinking a bit about bread lately. How and why we eat it, how it’s made, etc. Probably sparked by last weekend’s demo at Champoeg State Park on how the early Oregon settlers harvested and processed wheat. Bread has been such an integral part of our diet ever since people started organizing themselves into cities. At least in the Western world. It’s still a pretty integral part of our diets today. In fact, most people probably eat way too much white bread now since it’s so easily available. Cheap calories, my friends. Don’t do it. But I digress.
I’ve been thinking about fermentation a lot lately too. Kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and yes, sourdough bread. I haven’t done any baking in years, but I think I may take a stab at it again. I want to try some of the cultures you can get from Sourdoughs International. They have some new ones that work well with whole wheat and spelt flours, so it might just be time to start doing some baking. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
We’re throwing a huge bash for my friend Anne’s 40th birthday over 4th of July, and I got put in charge of organizing the food. This is a new one for me, as I’ve never tried to come up with “snacks and finger food for 200 people” before. I’ve done dinner for 50, but this is a bit different. So now I’m trying to balance time/money/labor to figure out how much is too much. The biggest challenge is figuring out what can be done ahead of time, how to store it if I do, and how to keep the cost down and still have it dazzle people. Plus, as with the feast I did, it’ll be at an SCA event, so everything has to be done with camp kitchens.
I’m going to focus on Arab snack/street food. I think a lot of it can be done pretty cheaply. I found a recipe for various spice/nut powders for dipping hard boiled eggs into which sounds both easy and cheap, so I think that one’s a go. I think in the interest of cost/time/inclination we may end up with some Indian or Greek options thrown in, but hey, the Arabs were/are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch, right?
I’ll let you know how it works out. If I think of it I’d like to get some pictures too.
Scotsman.com has an article about the fact that Glaswegians (people from Glasgow, and no, it doesn’t make sense) probably ate a much healthier diet in 1405 than they do today. I think that’s probably pretty much true universally. I think most pre-industrial societies world-wide probably ate a much healthier diet than we do today, although we have access to way more/better resources. Which is pretty sad if you stop to think about it.
If you look at pre-industrial, and particularly aboriginal diets, they almost always work out to being a pretty well-balanced diet. People ate a much wider variety of things in most places than we do today, thanks to foraging, local variations and lack of monoculture. There are some exceptions to this, such as some of the earliest “city” societies who were way too dependent on grain, but I think on the whole diets were better.
Why? We are programmed to crave things that are rare in nature. Like salt, fat, and sugar. In pre-industrial societies, those were rare commodities, and our bodies are designed to take advantage of them when they are available. The problem is that now those things aren’t rare anymore, and we still crave them. Plus they all happen to be cheap now, so food companies want us to fill up on cheap crap instead of eating real, less processed, but more expensive ingredients.
The bottom line? Take back your diet (and your health) and eat like a Viking!
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Last night I wanted something with vegetables, so on reviewing what I had on hand I decided on some quick stir fries. The first one started with a bag of “brocco-slaw” which you can pick up in most grocery stores. It’s basically shredded broccoli stems, with some carrot and purple cabbage for color. It makes a great stir fry, and it’s zero work. I through some oil and garlic in the wok, fried the garlic briefly, chowing all the while. (Chow is the technical wokking word for “tossing quickly so it doesn’t scorch”.) Once the garlic had browned, I tossed in the bag of broccoli bits and chowed them until they softened up a bit. I added some soy sauce, oyster sauce, and a little toasted sesame oil. Once everything looked pretty much “cooked” I added a cubed block of firm tofu, and heated it through, then served (with rice).
The second dish was one of my quickie favorites, spicy stir-fried cucumbers. Peel a cuke or two, cut them in half length-wise, and remove the seeds with a spoon. Then chop them into bite-sized pieces. In the wok, heat up some oil, then throw in the cukes. Add some soy sauce, your favorite chili paste (I use a Chinese garlic/bean/chili paste) and maybe a dash of sesame oil. Chow until the cucumbers just start to soften a bit, maybe 3–4 minutes. We don’t usually think of cucumbers being cooked, but it’s a very simple and very tasty way to use up some cucumbers you may have on hand.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
It’s been ages since I’ve made pizza from scratch. Like a really long time. Back when my wife and I were first married (lo these 13 years ago) I used to make pizza all the time. Like once a week. And I’m not talking putting stuff on a pre-made crust, I’m talking from flour and yeast to the pizza stone in the oven. But I remember it being a lot of work, and ever since I started seeking out low-glycemic foods, pizza pretty much fell out of rotation.
You can probably see where this is leading, but I’ll cut to the chase. My daughter has been suggesting (forcefully) that she really wants me to make pizza, so last night I dusted off the old peel and went to work. It wasn’t as much work as I remembered, possibly thanks to the dough hook on my trusty KitchenAid, although it did make quite a mess.
I decided on one half “just cheese” and half Hawaiian for the kids, and a whole wheat version with mushrooms, olives, red onion and sausage. Overall, it went pretty well. The dough came together easily, I found all the tools, etc. I think the white flour dough was a little too soft, however, which combined with my lack of practice with the pizza peel to pretty much explode the first pie all over the inside of my oven. There was much wringing of hands and recriminations (all on my part, my daughter was un-phased), but I managed to salvage most of it. It was an awfully strange shape, but pretty edible according to reports.
The second one came off without a hitch, thanks to stiffer whole wheat dough and way more flour on the peel.
It was easy enough that I just might have to try it again. My son’s been demanding a taco pizza, so maybe that’ll be the next round.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Having had pretty decent success with bean-and-beef dishes, I decided to try it with a pork shoulder roast last weekend. It came out pretty well, and couldn’t get much easier.
I soaked about a cup of “cranberry” beans overnight in water to start with. You could use whatever bean you have handy…I had cranberries. Pinto or calypso, or Anasazi beans would also come out well. I love heirloom bean varieties, and have tried a bunch. I really like the ones with groovy names, like Rattlesnake, buckskin, etc. You can find tons of them at Bob’s Red Mill in Portland. But I digress.
Once the beans were soaked, I threw them in a Dutch oven with the pork shoulder roast (mine was about 3 pounds), a big can of Mexican-style hominy (posole) and a packet of “red enchilada sauce mix” I picked up at New Seasons. Threw in enough water to cover, slapped the lid on and brought it up to a boil on the stove top.
After it boiled, I moved it to a 350° oven for 3 hours. At the end of the 3 hours, I threw in salt to taste, and about 1/3 cup of white wine vinegar to bring out the chiles in the enchilada sauce mix. You could also use canned enchilada sauce, in which case I’d leave out the vinegar and some of the salt. Back in the oven for another hour, and it was ready to serve.
I served each person a hunk off the roast, and some of the beans/posole from the pot. You could also shred up the pork and mix it all together.
Low effort, and both tasty and filling. I’d like to try it with green sauce some time, either from scratch or just canned. I think tonight the leftovers are going to find their way into burritos.
Friday, May 13, 2005
Big success last weekend. I made a big batch of Persian Rice and Lentil pilaf. You cook the rice and lentils, and separately back some lamb or chicken with onions and spices, then serve them together at the end. It came out really well, and we had so much rice left over that I cooked up a second batch of meat a few days later.
Persian pilafs are a lot of work, but well worth the effort. You boil the rice with lots of water like you would pasta, about 6–10 minutes, then drain it, and pile it in a mound in a heavy pot with lots of butter. Then you let it steam over low heat for about an hour. The result should be very light and fluffy rice with a hard crust on the bottom that is the best part. I’d never tried it with lentils before. It made a nice contrast in color and texture.
The meat was super easy. Throw some stew lamb, shanks, whatever (or chicken parts) in an oven proof container with some salt, pepper, cinnamon, cumin, tumeric, and some onions and garlic and bake at 350 for 2 hours. Simple goodness!
Thursday, April 28, 2005
I’ve tried this one twice now, and not only is it way easy, but it comes out really well, and makes for great leftovers. If you don’t like pork, however, turn back now…
Start by sauteing some onions, garlic, celery, carrots and some herbs (I used dried basil this last time I think). Once they are golden, throw in some Italian sausage and some country-style pork ribs. When they are brown, add about a cup of wine (red or white) and cook it down to being almost dry.
Then add another cup of water, cover, and simmer about 1/2 hour. Then add some tomatoes. I used a big can of “crushed tomatoes” from Muir Glen. I also threw in some pickled peppercorns. The basically just cook in until the ribs fall apart. Maybe 2 hours.
Very tasty, low stress, and the leftovers are great. I just took the leftovers, added some extra tomato sauce and served it over pasta. Mmmmmm. Porky goodness.
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