Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Home Made Sour Cream, Accidentally

Well, let me start by saying I'm trying to make a few "beginning" soft cheese recipes but basically because of Thanksgiving. I have recipes for various pumpkin pies, tortes, etc. and reading through ingredients for scratch pumpkin desserts, they all called for some highly processed milk products: canned condensed milk, heavy or whipping cream (stores only carry ultra-pasteurized yuck), processed cream cheese... none of which I want to use.

So I decided to make my own cream cheese. I can buy non-homogenized whole milk, and heavy cream, from Homestead Creamery and carried by Kroger in the next town south of me. I have no real problem with pasteurized milk (except politically, environmentally and the control/distribution greed factor) although I'd prefer raw milk to make any milk product like cheese.

So, this batch was supposed to be fresh cream cheese, which is apparently not difficult... somewhat like making yogurt. I mixed 2 cups whole milk with 2 cups cream, and heated it to 90ºF. Then I added 2 tablespoons of cultured buttermilk, and covered it. The next step was to add ¼ tablet of Junket rennet or some mesophilic culture, and I could NOT find where I put either of them. They probably eloped together.

So without the rennet or culture, I was actually making sour cream! It will need to be strained because I used half milk and half cream rather than just cream. Most recipes suggest milk and cream for the cream cheese I planned to make, and only plain cream to make sour cream or crème fraîche.

Once the cultured buttermilk is added, it takes from 12-24 hours to thicken, depending on room temperature and how much active culture is in the buttermilk. As you can see in the photo above, it was thick in places, but not consistently thick throughout the mix.

When I got up this morning, it was somewhat thick and very slightly bubbly, so I stuck it in the refrigerator since I was busy making feta. I took it out about an hour ago, strained it through some butter muslin, and now have it hanging to drip more of the liquid off.

This batch made 20 oz. of lush, rich, fresh sour cream. It is more sour cream than I want or need, given that I just bought some 2 days earlier! Serves me right, for not having mise en place (everything set up before beginning) because then I would have known the rennet or culture was AWOL.

However, I still have enough whole milk and cream remaining to start again to make cream cheese... later. I'll post it separately.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A DNA Mystery in Seeds

I read a blog by John Michael Greer, and last week he wrote about seeds and the incredible amount of information they store in their DNA. 

Mr. Greer said:
"This is why when you tap a seed envelope against your hand and send a single seed rolling out onto your palm, you’re holding two billion years of stored information. That’s how long, according to current paleontology, the process of evolution has been shaping the genetic code of living things related to the ones we encounter today, and every generation across that unimaginable length of time has contributed something to the shaping of the little packet of genetic material, nutrition, and protective layers we call a plant seed."

So, he's saying the information stored in the seed has been collected and perhaps shaped by earlier generations of that seed (and other factors) for a very long time, is in the current seed's DNA. That information certainly affects the characteristic growth of the seed into a plant. The seed contains genetic information to help it grow into roots, stems, stalks, flowers, fruit, leaves...

But think about this: our human DNA also contains all our genetic information. The DNA, genes, or genetic information, in every cell in our body is exactly the same. The DNA, the genetic material, the genetic program is identical in the arms and the legs, and so are the chemicals, the proteins... and are also exactly like those in my skin, or my heart muscle. So, how did the genetic information in my legs and arms know for some of them to take the form of a leg, some to take the form of an arm, and still others to take the various other forms in my body? The morphogentetic fields give the plans of the developing organism.

A plant follows the same biological rules: the genes in the leaves of a plant are the same as the genes in the roots, or in the fruit.

Many of the biologists who study the development of form in plants and animals have the theory that developing organisms are shaped by something they call morphic fields. We all have seen short videos of morphing where one human face morphs or changes into another face, and there are many computer programs designed to let us play with this form of creativity. So, the idea of morphing is not really new to us.

These morphic fields are scientifically described as "self-organizing fields of influence", comparable to other know  fields such as magnetic fields. The problem is that no one really knows (yet) what morphic fields really are or how they work.

Rupert Sheldrake has this to say:

The Hypothesis of Morphic Fields
"All self-organizing systems are wholes made up of parts, which are themselves wholes at a lower level, such as atoms in molecules and molecules in crystals. The same is true of organelles in cells, cells in tissues, tissues in organs, organs in organisms, organisms in social groups. At each level, the morphic field gives each whole its characteristic properties and interconnects and coordinates the constituent parts.

The fields responsible for the development and maintenance of bodily form in plants and animals are called morphogenetic fields. In animals, the organization of behavior and mental activity depends on behavioral and mental fields. The organization of societies and cultures depends on social and cultural fields. All these kinds of organizing fields are morphic fields.

These fields are supposed to be within and around these organisms that they organize. There are hierarchies of fields within fields. So in our bodies there is a liver field, a kidney field, an eye field, and so on. Within those fields are the fields for the tissues and fields of the
cells—nested hierarchies of fields within fields.

Morphogenetic fields have a holistic property that is not present in chunks of matter."

My understanding is Sheldrake says morphogenetic fields impose patterns of organization on organisms, and later in the article he says the patterns become "habitual". That makes sense to me... If we grow a plant that normally has green leaves and one individual plant sports a variegated leaf, we can propagate the variegated plant with a probability that more variegation will happen in subsequent generations. The means by which the activity-pattern (in this case, the variegation) is passed on to subsequent generations (systems) is called morphic resonance.

The science of all this is very complex, and I barely understand the top tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I know that years ago when I read about The Hundreth Monkey effect, it was said to be a myth. Now, science is beginning to prove otherwise by morphic fields and morphic resonance.

Photo is in the Public Domain

Here's one thought I have: If it's true that something unknown outside the genetic imprint affects things like seeds and people, isn't it also a possiblity that there may actually be something to the subtle energies coming at us from outside our lovely blue orb? That the gravitational pull of our moon may indeed have a variable affect on plant growth the same way the moon affects tides? And if the moon, why not Saturn, or another huge chunk of matter out in the Universe, in some way? Rudolph Steiner thought so, and so do many of today's agricultural and biological researchers and scientists.

If those subtle energies affect the organisms we call plants, animals and humans, what effect might they have on carbon (biochar?) or mineral components in our soils? 

The implications are certainly thought-provoking.  

My goal is to grow foods that are brimming with a vital energy no longer evident in most of our foods, and conventional or even organic methods of natural fertilizers and pesticides just don't cut it.  My garden is slowly becoming an experiment with Nature, rather than imposing on Nature.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My First Try at Making Feta Cheese

I adore feta cheese, and what little is available around here is expensive, usually processed crumbles, and not to my liking. Certainly not a nice chunk of fresh feta sitting in a brine.

Screwing my courage to the sticking point, I decided it was time to try to make feta. I had a gallon of raw whole goat milk in the freezer, which I defrosted. Heated it to just under 90ºF, and added 2-3 tablespoons of plain yogurt. One tablespoon might be enough if the yogurt is very fresh and lively with cultures; mine has been in the store and then my fridge more than a week.

Stir in the yogurt thoroughly, cover and leave at room temperature; set the timer for one hour. Meanwhile, dissolve half a rennet tablet in ¼ cup cold water and set aside. (I went with an hour and 15 minutes because this room is cool.) When the time is up, stir in the rennet solution, re-cover, and allow to stand overnight at room temperature.

The next morning, check for a clean break, which is sticking a clean finger in the top and checking to see that the solids and whey separate easily. 

With a long thin blade (I used an icing spatula), cut the curd across the pot in ½" sections. Rotate the pot 90º and cut across the curd, forming cubes about ½" x ½". My curd layer was very soft and did not cut evenly... it floated like an elusive jelly fish and I ended up with various sized chunks.

Strain the curds in a cheesecloth-covered strainer, saving the whey which will be used later for the brine for the feta. A clean, tightly woven handkerchief or a tee shirt would work fine as a straining material if you don't have some fine cheesecloth or butter muslin. 

When a lot of the whey has dripped off the curds, tie them in the cheesecloth and hang them above a pot to catch the drips. As you can see in the photo above, I already took a quart of whey out, and there's more in the bowl. You can drain the curds in the refrigerator if the room is really warm, but my place is fairly cool so I drained at room temperature.

I accidentally missed a step, and I don't know if it would have helped, but I think it would have. The overlooked step was to gently stir the cut curds with clean hands, bringing the lower curds to the top, and letting them sit another 15 minutes in the whey to contract. This step might have given my curds a little more 'body'. Sigh. Hey, it's my first time to try this, and I expect mistakes!

Make a pickling brine for the feta, about 12½% salt. That's roughly 5 tablespoons of salt dissolved in 20 ounces of whey. The acid in the whey, combined with the salt, will preserve the feta (under refrigeration) and keep the cheese from getting mushy on the surface. I made my brine when I first drained the curds, so the salt would have time to dissolve. Refrigerate the brine, and the extra whey that drained off. I use mason jars.

After 2-4 hours, most of the whey should have dripped off. Place the curds in a bowl and mix in a little salt, to taste. (My recipe said ½ teaspoon.) I started with ¼ teaspoon, using sea salt, and ended up using between ¼ and ½ teaspoon. I'm cautious about using too much salt, because later I will soak the feta in a salty brine. 

After the curds are salted to taste, wrap them in a layer or two of cheesecloth or a single layer of butter muslin and place them in a mold of some sort. 

An empty coffee can would work; remove both ends but save one end. You could also use a thoroughly cleaned piece of PVC pipe. Many cheesemakers use PVC in larger diameters as molds, and cut a circle of wood (well-oiled) to fit just inside the pipe as the top to hold the weights.

Place the cheesecloth-wrapped curds in the mold, put the saved can end on top, and put some weight on top of it. 

More whey will drain out, so put the mold in a saucer or bowl, just something to catch the drips. I used 2 pints of pears as my weights. They wobbled so I stuck 3 styrofoam pellets around the inside top for balance!

Leave it overnight.

The next morning, carefully remove the muslin-wrapped cheese from the mold. 

Peel back the muslin or cheesecloth carefully. Remember, the cheese is fragile at this point.

I turned mine over so I had a smoother surface to cut.

Cut the feta into cubes about 1½" and drop into the chilled brine. My feta was very crumbly, and I'm thinking I needed more weight to press it. I'll find out the next time I make some!

Feta, ready to cure in the refrigerator in brine for several days before using. If it tastes too salty, you can simply rinse it before using.

All in all, I'm pleased with my first try at making feta. The texture needs improvement; in addition to more weight in pressing, I also wonder if the texture was affected by my goat milk being frozen for a couple of months before I used it. Next time I'll use fresh goat milk.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Turkey on the Smoker/Grill

Out of necessity (broken oven) I cooked my heritage turkey on my almost-never-used 18" diameter smoker-grill. Good thing it was a small bird! I had lots of fear and trepidation about doing it, but that was my only choice unless I wanted to fry it in a skillet. My old gas grill bit the dust several years ago and it didn't seem reasonable on my limited income to buy another one, or a turkey deep-fryer. This smoker came new in a box, but cheap from a yard sale several years ago, and only my brother has used it when he visits... for grilled steaks and oysters steamed in their shells.

Thankfully, I found directions for cooking a turkey in it online. My small turkey had been brined several hours the day before, and then rinsed and refrigerated overnight. I had no charcoal starter since I hate the stuff and the taste it imparts to food, so I had a hard time getting a fire going. (I bought one of those chimneys to start charcoal last year but have no idea where I put it!) The charcoal I used is pure hardwood charcoal, not briquettes made chemicals and paraffin as a binder. I burned the bag as part of the starter so I can't tell you who made it.

Turkey went on when the temp indicator in the domed top said "Ideal". The stainless steel pan under the turkey was to catch the drippings, but that didn't happen until later. I was too clueless to take the smoker body off and notice the charcoal forms an ash covering that kept the fire temperature low. Had I noticed sooner, the bird would have cooked sooner/faster, and had more drippings from the fat in the skin and around the cavities!

After 2-3 hours, it was finally beginning to show a rise in the internal temperature of the bird! Shaking the coals to cause the ash to fall off helped increase the cooking temperature a lot!

Finally, after dark (I got a late start), the bird was done. It was very moist and juicy, and exceptionally tasty, like a free-range heritage turkey should be! Now I won't have to cook much for my Christmas  Dinner... lots of turkey, apple-sausage dressing, and half the giblet gravy makings in the freezer!

Would I cook a turkey on the smoker-grill again? Yes, now that I have tried it once!! I might even smoke it the next time... I had soaked some apple chips to add flavored smoke, but didn't use them after all. No particular reason, though... I just didn't. The turkey had no smoky taste, because the charcoal didn't put off much smoke and I didn't add any moist chips on the coals to make smoke.

Turkey Brine:
I used the Chez Panisse recipe, but cut the garlic by 3/4, the salt by 1/2 and added some fresh sliced ginger. I also cut the time to about 6 hours since my bird weighed only 7 pounds.

Chez Panisse Turkey Brine
2 1/2 gallons cold water (I only needed 2 gallons to cover my bird)
2 cups kosher salt (I used 1 cup)
1 cup sugar (I used brown sugar)
2 bay leaves, torn into pieces
1 bunch fresh thyme, or 4 tablespoons dried ( (I used fresh)
1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled (I used 4 small cloves)
5 whole allspice berries, crushed
4 juniper berries, smashed
(I added about a tablespoon or more of fresh sliced ginger)

Place the water in a large non-reactive pot that can easily hold the liquid and the turkey. Add all the ingredients and stir for a minute or two until the sugar and salt dissolve.

Put the turkey into the brine and refrigerate for 24 hours. (I brined my bird only about 6 hours because it was small) If the turkey floats to the top, weight it down with a plate and cans to keep it completely submerged in the brine.

Note: You may halve or double the recipe. The important thing is to prepare enough brine to cover the turkey completely. Also note that the brine may make pan drippings too salty for gravy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Paying the Piper

I haven't posted on my Weight Log in almost 7 weeks, partly because I haven't dared get on the scales to weigh myself, and partly because I've been veering off my food protocol with empty calories and know I have gained weight. So I screwed my courage to the sticking post and weighed myself this morning: up 7 pounds. I don't really mind the weight gain too much, although I'd prefer NOT to have it at all. What's really annoying, though, is how I feel.

My energy level has been falling noticeably for several weeks, and for the last week or two I have been experiencing the painful acid reflux and indigestion I had 8-9 months ago before I changed what I eat. I haven't checked my blood pressure, but I feel as if it's inching up as well. I did see my endocrinologist and my liver doctors at the beginning of November and received good reports from both, pending results of blood work. (BP Nov. 2 was 120/60.)

However, I hadn't strayed much from my food protocol at that time, either. My birthday was during the trip to see my docs, and I made the mistake of celebrating by buying a slice of cake from the bakery section at Whole Foods (not Real Food!). That led to a box of soft peppermint sticks for quick energy on the road (more empty calories)... and it has been all downhill from there! Off and on during the first part of November, I ate more added-sugar things like candy, which only increased a desire for sweet rolls, then cakes and bread. (And not even home-made with good ingredients, either!)

Chicken or the egg? My real downfall, I think, has been the re-introduction of grains into my diet but that's a toss-up with sugar. I merely re-joined all the people who fail to put a control over cravings for mouth watering foods! I accuse the grains for the digestive problems, but I have to admit the sugars started me down that path. Once added sugars were back in my diet, I was without any resistance at all. The natural sugars in fruits didn't seem to trigger that craving, thankfully.

I also noticed that when I added grain products back to my diet, my intake of good fats dropped. All I wanted to eat was bread, rolls, cake, cookies... seldom a meal of meat or eggs and vegetables without desserts. 

The body only makes energy from 2 sources: fats and sugars. Of course, extra sugars (including those from vegetable carbs) are stored as fat tissue and the body likes to hang onto them, preferring a fresh (and frequent) intake.

Whether it's gluten intolerance or not, I really don't know or care. I have proven to myself that my body loves grain products (which contain the protein called gluten), but they make me feel lousy and gain weight. So that means no more grain products... and to keep that craving at bay, no more added sugars either.

Unfortunately for my diet, I concocted a recipe for the best dressing for Thanksgiving that I've made in a long time, and most of it is now in the freezer in small portions. It contains bread of course, but also 2 kinds of sausage, plus apples and vegetables. I cannot promise I won't eat that sausage dressing over time, nor promise I will not make the fresh pumpkin pie with a pastry crust made with my own rendered lard, maybe for Christmas. I do know my food protocol has to change, and I doubt it will be any easier than it was in March.

I cannot speak to eating legumes at this point, though, as it is still an unknown. I have only had beans once in 8-9 months, and that was a pint of home-canned vegetable bean soup about 3 weeks ago. All it did was give me gas, but not the desire to have more. However, I won't even think about trying to add any legumes back to my food list until I have the sugar/grain thing under control again.

This time of the year is tough for finding vegetables that are low on the glycemic index. What is available is generally grown in another country and shipped thousands of miles... or else more local starchy carbs like potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc. Even salad greens are shipped in from elsewhere. This strengthens my resolve to build a cold frame next year to extend my own growing season.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Skillet? Cornbread?

I found this recipe online for someone's great-grandmother's skillet cornbread. Sounded like a winner. Only it wasn't a winner for me, but that had very little to do with the recipe. I'm beginning to feel like Sisyphus pushing that %^&*(# rock, but I AM determined to get a handle on bread-like items that can be cooked either on the stovetop or in my small tabletop oven.

Followed the directions, mixed up the ingredients (and forgot the salt!), heated the skillet... 

... and proceeded according to directions. After a few minutes, the batter formed bubbles in it the way pancakes do.

Eventually it "dried" on top and I was to turn it over so it would brown on the other side. Well, lemme tell ya, it didn't turn over easily! Yeah, I know the photo is out of focus, but I'm using it as a reference on what NOT to do. (The small skillet has the turkey liver I cooked for my cats, in case you are wondering.)

I will try this again, but I will use some flour in the batter, which this recipe did not have. Then, I will also use a smaller skillet. Part of the problem in turning the cornbread over was that the outer edges (where the skillet hung over the burner) were not getting enough heat to cook while the center was getting too browned. I don't know the BTU's of these burners but large pots of liquid take a long time to come to a boil, and only if a lid is on the pot.

Update: I finally made cornbread, just not skillet cornbread! It took several more failures, and several recipe adaptations, but I was eventually able to make a half-batch in my portable oven. I went back to trying the little oven because I couldn't find my 8" cast iron skillet, and the smaller one I have just holds a single fried egg. It wouldn't make much cornbread (even though I don't need much for my turkey dressing).

This recipe turned out nicely, and not too crumbly. Of course, my granddaddy would love any crumbly cornbread. I remember he used to eat a chunk broken into a glass of real buttermilk before bedtime.

Turkey Trivia

Turkeys originated in North and Central America, and evidence indicates that they have been around for over 10 million years.

Only male turkeys (toms) gobble. Females (hens) make a clicking noise. The gobble is a seasonal call during the spring and fall. Hens are attracted for mating when a tom gobbles. Wild toms love to gobble when they hear loud sounds or settle in for the night. 

The average person in the U.S. will eat more than seventeen pounds of turkey this year, and the average Canadian will eat nine pounds. (This includes turkey sausage, turkey bacon, and turkey lunch meats, in addition to holiday turkeys.

In 2010, more than 242 million turkeys were raised with an average live-weight per bird of 28 pounds with nearly 6 billion pounds of turkey processed. By contrast, in 1970, only 105 million birds were raised with an average live-weight of 17 pounds and 1.5 billion pounds processed. The turkeys produced in 2009 together weighed 7.1 billion pounds and were valued at $3.6 billion.

Two to four billion pounds of poultry feathers are produced every year. Most are ground up as filler for animal food. (Mature turkeys each have 3,500 or so feathers.)

Turkeys have great hearing, but no external ears. They can also see in color, and have excellent visual acuity and a wide field of vision (about 270 degrees), which makes sneaking up on them difficult.

At one time, the turkey and the bald eagle were each considered as the national symbol of America. Benjamin Franklin was one of those who argued passionately on behalf of the turkey. Franklin felt the turkey, although "vain and silly", was a better choice than the bald eagle.

Turkeys are believed to be dumb birds that will look up to the sky when it rains until they drown. Actually they are no more or less intelligent than comparable animals.

There is a traditional White House - Presidential custom called the Turkey Pardon  that dates to Harry S. Truman's presidency. The origins are obscure; some think it even goes back to Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son Tad's pet turkey.

Presidents have been pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving for years, but where the bird goes after its White House cameo has changed. For 15 years, until 2004, the birds went to a historic farm in Herndon, Va.: Frying Pan Farm Park. Disneyland took over in 2005 when the California park was celebrating its 50th anniversary. The pardoned turkey and an alternate -- Marshmallow and Yam -- got a police escort to the airport and flew first class to California.

This year, after President Obama pardons the turkey Wednesday before Thanksgiving; the fortunate fowl will live out the rest of its life at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia.

Turkey droppings are being used as a fuel source in electric power plants like one in Minnesota that provides 55 megawatts of power using 700,000 tons (that’s 140 million pounds!) of dung per year. There are three such plants in England. The critics say turkey litter, of all farm animals' manure, is the most valuable as a rich, organic fertilizer at a time when demand is growing for all things organic. (Source)

Baking and Other Cooking Equipment Challenges

Everyday cooking is not usually a big challenge for me... well until lately anyway. Over the last year (due to family disharmony) I have been cooking more and more often in a makeshift corner of my office, outfitted with a 2 burner hotplate, a crock-pot and a coffee pot. I do bigger things like baking and canning in the regular kitchen at the other end of the house, occasionally burning things in the oven because I don't hear the timer this far away. 

However, at the beginning of November my sister killed the oven while I was out of town, and now I'm trying to learn rudimentary baking in a small counter-top convection oven in my space. (I bought the oven a year ago, just didn't make space for it then.) The area around the oven gets very hot, too hot for comfort, so I moved it to the brick hearth by my wood stove. I need something heat-proof to sit it on so it's higher, though... these old bones don't like working at floor level!

It's a real challenge to try and bake in it, as everything has to be adjusted for size/quantity, and watched carefully once in the oven... recipe temperatures don't always work out just by automatically lowering the temp by 25º, and most of my bakeware won't fit. Best so far are an 8x8 square or round commercial pan which heats more evenly. The instructions say not to use glass pie pans or loaf pans in it, I'm fearful of damaging my pottery bakeware, and I refuse to buy disposable aluminum pans. Certainly my Thanksgiving turkey won't fit either, even though it's a very small turkey.

I've already burned the tops of muffins even though the centers were still uncooked. Same for a small cake. It makes me very hesitant about more "trial" baking with Thanksgiving just a day away. My stuffing/dressing recipe has cornbread in it, and I have always made my cornbread in a cast iron skillet in the oven. 

Thinking on it though... my grandmother made cornbread, biscuits and who knows what else over an open fire when she and 2 sisters homesteaded 160 acres in Colorado and lived in an Army-type walled tent. 

If she could manage, I'm sure I can figure it out too. In actuality, I'm considering it good practice in the event of extended power outages. Whatever I learn to cook on a hot plate burner should translate to cooking over a fire with some minor tinkering. Even the cardboard smoker I made could act as an oven with some adaptation.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cranberry Pear Clafouti

OhMyGod~... This is one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth!!! YUM! YUM! YUM!  
If you are not familiar with a clafouti, you are not alone... neither was I, except reading the name occasionally on food blogs. This one I made, my very first, blew me away with the taste. I had thought it might be good, but turned out to be one of the best damn desserts I have eaten in my whole life!

According to Wikipedia, a clafouti, or clafoutis, is a baked French dessert of black cherries in a buttered dish, covered with a thick flan-like batter and baked. The clafoutis is dusted with powdered sugar and served lukewarm.

The clafoutis originates in the Limousin region of France... and while black cherries are traditional, there are numerous variations using other fruits. I have fresh cranberries on hand for Thanksgiving, and still a lot of pears in my root cellar, so I decided to adapt a recipe I found for a Cranberry Pear Clafouti. The batter is a Yorkshire pudding style, made with eggs, sugar, cream and a little flour. The result is like a thick, puffy pancake baked over the fruit.

My adaptations were mostly in the method of cooking, although I did substitute half and half for the evaporated milk, and also increased the amount of pears, and flour.

I put about a cup of cranberries and three diced medium-size pears (peeled and cored) in a skillet, along with 1/3 cup of sugar and about 1½ tablespoons of butter. The online recipe called for only 1 pear, no butter, and baking the fruit about 20 minutes until soft. I only have a counter-top convection to work with at the moment, and decided it was easier to pre-cook the fruit in a skillet instead.

The cranberries were fairly quick to burst in the pan, and the cranberries and pears both softened in about 15 minutes on medium heat. The butter kept the sugar and fruit from sticking to the pan until they gave up some of their juices.

Next, drain the juices and set aside. The fruits don't have to be very dry, but not swimming in their juices either. Pre-heat the oven to 375ºF. Notice I used a different pan for baking. I'm using a small countertop convection oven until our oven gets repaired (or we get a new range).

In a bowl, mix 2 large eggs, 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons vanilla, ⅓ cup half and half, and ¼ cup sugar.

Spread the drained fruit evenly in the bottom of an oven-proof pan (which you have buttered), and pour the batter on top.

Bake in the upper third of an oven until puffed around the edges and set in the center, about 12-15 minutes.

Because this batter puffs when it cooks, it also falls just like a soufflé! The topping deflated in the time it took to find and focus the camera! This is the virgin dish for this little oven, and I also see it heats unevenly. Next time, I'll keep a better eye on it and rotate halfway through.

OhMyGod~...  that's one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth!!! YUM! YUM! YUM! Not too sweet; just enough sweetness to excite my tastebuds dancing around the tart cranberries. The 'pudding' was excellent, a puffy-custard-y texture with lovely vanilla overtones.

Serve warm with the reserved juices (re-warmed) poured on top. Sprinkle with a tad of powdered sugar for looks. Serves 4.

Here's my recipe adaptation:

    * 3 medium pears, peeled, cored and cut into ½ inch dice
    * 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
    * ⅓ cup sugar (for the fruit) plus ¼ cup sugar for the batter
    * 2 large eggs
    * 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    * 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
    * ⅓ cup half & half (or cream)
    * 1 teaspoon confectioners’ sugar

Place oven rack in upper third of oven. Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly oil a 9-inch glass pie plate or coat it with cooking spray. (I used a metal pan; can't use glass in this oven)

Combine pear, cranberries and ⅓ cup of the sugar in the baking dish. Bake until the fruit is tender and very juicy, about 20 minutes. (I did mine is a skillet on the stovetop.)

Meanwhile, whisk eggs, flour, vanilla and the remaining ¼ cup sugar in a medium bowl until smooth. Whisk in half and half.

Drain the juices from the baked fruit into a small bowl, holding back the fruit with a metal spatula. Reserve the juices. Redistribute the fruit over the bottom of the dish and pour in the egg mixture. Bake until puffed and set, about 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.

Serve warm, with the reserved fruit juices spooned over the top. Sprinkle with a tad of powdered sugar.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brining a Turkey

Photo from Rachel Tayse's Photostream

I just took my free-range heritage turkey out of the freezer to thaw before I drop it in a brine for a few hours. I do a LOT of brining... turkey, chickens, Cornish Game hens, and even some pork. Of course, the corned beef I make is also really a brine. and I don't know why I haven't posted before now about brining in general. It's the best thing I've ever done to a turkey, other than buying a heritage turkey!

Since I'm brining overnight (tonight) and Thanksgiving is imminent, I don't have time to do a 'show and tell' about my brine at the last minute. I am using the Chez Panisse brine, cut down in quantity and brining time since my turkey is very small.

Chez Panisse Brine
2 1/2 gallons cold water
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 bay leaves, torn into pieces
1 bunch fresh thyme, or 4 tablespoons dried
1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
5 whole allspice berries, crushed
4 juniper berries, smashed

Place the water in a large non-reactive pot that can easily hold the liquid and the turkey. Add all the ingredients and stir for a minute or two until the sugar and salt dissolve.

Put the turkey into the brine and refrigerate for 24 hours. If the turkey floats to the top, weight it down with a plate and cans to keep it completely submerged in the brine.

Note: You may halve or double the recipe. The important thing is to prepare enough brine to cover the turkey completely. Also note that the brine may make pan drippings too salty for gravy.

To roast: Remove the bird from the brine, rinse and drain well. Pat dry. Follow the instructions for roasting.

However, I think I will add a little of the candied ginger that Alton Brown uses, just because I love ginger!

Here's a great link with information about brining, and several good brine recipes. At another time, I think I may try their Apple Brine

Happy Brining for a Happy Turkey!

'Bourbon Red' Heritage Turkey

This year, just like the last two years, I will have a Bourbon Red heritage turkey on my Thanksgiving table. It was locally pasture-raised, and bred by a friend at the Farmer's Market. If you have never had a heritage turkey, you are missing out!

What are heritage turkeys, and why would we want one?

For one thing, they are not only very tasty, and they are sustainable! They are capable of walking, running, even flying, and able to breed by themselves. They can lay fertile eggs, and set a clutch of eggs to hatch.

Chefs say that they have much better taste than other turkeys. That is because they are slower to develop, which gives them stronger bones and organs before developing muscle, just as our turkeys did many long years ago. Because there is less white meat (compared to the ubiquitous Broad-Breasted White turkey sold in grocery stores), they can dry out while the longer-cooking requirements for dark meat are met. One solution is to brine the turkey, which I am doing. Another is to add some butter between the skin over the breast and the breast itself. The turkey needs to be covered during cooking with oiled or buttered parchment paper, not foil, except for a brief period near the end to brown the bird. For more information on cooking heritage turkeys: http://www.localharvest.org/features/cooking-turkeys.jsp.
Heritage turkeys have a long and productive life span measured in years rather than weeks, and are very suitable for free-range with a pasture diet and thus meat with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. More than 10 different turkey breeds are classified as heritage turkeys, including the Beltsville Small White, Black, Bourbon Red, Buff, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate (or Slate Blue), Standard Bronze, White Holland, and White Midget. One thing I have noticed about heritage turkeys besides a handsome sleekness, is longer legs.

The turkey on your holiday table is most likely a Broad Breasted White turkey, selected and bred over the last several decades to be quick and cheap to produce, and to have a meaty breast. "The turkey you'll be eating could never exist in nature. After 50 years of over-engineering, it has morphed into a bizarre, ungainly beast that can no longer run, fly or even lay eggs. And all in the name of progress: what it can do is supply copious quantities of white breast meat at the expense of the dark meat from the leg and thigh." (Source)

The Broad Breasted White (BBW) turkey descends from several domesticated turkeys, which in turn descend from the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. It was originally preferred among similar domesticated turkey breeds because the white pin feathers didn’t show when it was market-ready. (I remember as a youngster having to help remove a few remaining dark pin feathers left from processing before my grandmother could bake the turkey.) 

Now the BBW has been bred to grow quickly (14 to 18 weeks to market), and to have a larger breast. (The breast meat in these birds accounts for 70% of their weight.) “The breeding stock for these birds are owned by just three multinational corporations: Hybrid Turkeys of Ontario, Canada; British United Turkeys of America in Lewisburg, West Virginia; and Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Sonoma, California." (Source)

As cheap as factory-raised turkeys are, there is a downside. They are bred so breast-heavy that most can barely walk, if at all. “They are so heavy that they are completely incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination, and they reach such extreme weights so quickly their overall development fails to keep pace with their rapidly accruing muscle mass, resulting in severe immune system, cardiac, respiratory and leg problems”. Only a few breeding toms are ever kept past the normal 14 to 18 weeks-to-market lifespan, and all factory turkeys are caged in extremely crowded conditions. (Source)

As the BBW turkey became the norm for factory-raised birds, the few remaining breeds of domesticated turkeys began to diminish dramatically. Conservation groups started to take notice, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) in 1997 considered heritage turkeys to the most critically endangered of all domestic animals. 

A census conducted by the Conservancy (1997) found less than 1,500 total breeding birds (out of all heritage varieties) were left in the entire country. Some breeds, such as the Narragansett had fewer than a dozen individuals left; many considered most heritage turkeys to be beyond hope of saving. Thanks to ALBC and groups like Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste, by 2008, there were more than 10,000 mature heritage turkeys available for sale at small farms, farmer’s markets, natural food stores and online.

My turkey this year is small, by request, since there is just me to feed... but I can assure you that since it's a heritage turkey, it will be exceptionally tasty and very enjoyable!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Making a Cranberry Syrup for a Glaze-Base

I have some fresh cranberries, as do many of us before Thanksgiving. I love the taste of cranberries but I do get tired of the same old cranberry recipes year after year. Additionally,  I do not have use of our oven until it gets repaired, so I am improvising and adapting several recipes in order to make them in my tabletop convection oven.

I decided to make some cranberry syrup to use as a glaze... one where I can add other flavorings (ginger, Curaçao, or whatever) to it as a recipe strikes my fancy, or by itself over pork, chicken or turkey. What I made is a very loose adaptation of an Epicurious recipe. I could have made a simple cranberry syrup thickened with corn starch, but I wanted to try this method.

I chopped about a cup of fresh cranberries in my mini-chopper and brought them just to a boil with 2/3 cup of water. Removed them from the heat, added a lid and left them to soak.

Next I put a scant half-cup of sugar in a small pan and slowly melted it down to a liquid that I allowed to caramelize. (I do the same thing when I make flan; the caramelized sugar goes in the bottom of custard cups before adding the custard.) The slightly cooked cranberries are next to the pot, ready to add as soon as the sugar caramelizes.

There is NO time to take a photo after adding the cranberries to the pot! I caution you that it will steam and hiss like crazy for a few moments. Stir the mixture until the caramelized sugar has 'melted; into the cranberry mixture.

Remove from heat and strain into a heat-proof jar while it is still hot. (As the sugared mixture cools, it will thicken.) I added about 1/3 cup of water while it was still hot, fearing it would harden before it was all strained. A mistake, I think. Next time, more sugar to caramelize, or less water... or both.

I decided to put the strained pulp on a piece of buttered foil to cool. The cooled pulp tastes just like a tart cranberry sauce, not as sweet or caramelized as I imagined. I have no idea what I will do with it! The syrup however, is quite nice even if it doesn't have the caramelized sugar overtones either. It will easily stand up to added flavorings, maybe I'll even cook some of it with sautéed shallots for a meat glaze...

Update: I used some of the pulp which I re-cooked, thickening it with more sugar and a pinch of ground ginger and drizzled it over some fresh pumpkin muffins. Tasty!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rendering Lard in a Crockpot

It's PIE time, and I need lard for pie crusts!

But, why do we render lard or tallow? Well, rendering improves storage life by removing the impurities, whether bits of flesh, connective tissue, or moisture. Down near the bottom of this post there is a photo of the 'dregs' that did not dissolve into pure lard during the rendering process. (This is more than one would usually have rendering fatback or leaf fat, but that is only because of what I used as the source for fat.)

My earlier posts on rendering have only been on beef tallow from leaf fat. I'm still waiting on my meat man for leaf fat and back fat from hog butchering so I can render some lard. However, Thanksgiving is coming soon, and that means pies... which means some lard for a flakier crust. Frankly, I make lousy pie crusts... but then, I've never made one with lard. Maybe, just maybe, I can make a decent crust with lard!

I had 3-4 pounds of frozen, uncured 'bacon' I ordered when a local meat co-op opened several months ago. I had thought I was getting pork belly to cure my own bacon, but it came thick-sliced instead. So, I am rendering roughly 3 pounds of it for lard, doing a few things different than I what did for the tallow.

One, I chopped the pieces much smaller. Two, I added a cup of water (the tallow was done dry, in the oven), and three, I'm using the crockpot (slow cooker). Someone asked me in a post earlier if rendering can be done in a crockpot, so I'm finding out!

Here's the beginning, after maybe half an hour. It has come up to temperature and now (while I'm writing) it is at a low simmer, uncovered.

This is after about 2-3 hours in the crockpot, and after I took off some of the liquid fat and water.. 

I removed part of the liquid (fat and water) and strained it through some cheesecloth. You can see the water at the bottom of the measuring cup. 

The lard will turn white when cooled. (I poured off much of the lard into the container at the left, before it was cooled enough to become white and semi-solid.)

There are still some dregs not fully rendered. I put them in a small skillet on a low temp, to see if the meaty bits will "fry", and I can get a little more lard from them. I'll package the remains in small amounts for the freezer as they will make tasty additions to soups and stir-fried greens.

Update: I ended up with one pound of mixed bits of small fat chunks and meat, one and a half pounds total of rendered lard; the remaining half pound of the original weight must have been a combination of water and some fat soaked into the layers of cheesecloth I used for straining. Also, the fat I rendered in the skillet after I strained the bulk of it (about half a pound) had a slight but noticeable bacon odor so I packaged it separately for use where taste doesn't matter. I don't want to make Bacon-Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving!

I see no reason lard cannot be successfully rendered in a crockpot, and I'm quite satisfied with mine even though it was uncured bacon slices and not chunks of pork fat. When I do get the pork leaf fat, I'll try some in the crockpot to see if that works equally well.