Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Milk Tastes Great

This is what is making me happy today. My first delivery of local milk in Charlotte (something I haven't had since Windy Ridge Dairy in Indiana, Pa., stopped delivering, oh I dunno...four decades ago?)...

Icy cold glass bottles clinking...Brian, the friendly milk truck driver...cream so thick and rich there is a separate layer on top... 1 doz. eggs from a local farm...and Brian promising to make sure I get 1 dozen eggs every Tuesday I get a delivery (from Lakeview Farms, just about 15 minutes away in SC)

What more do I really need in life?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mozzarella Madness

Everyone Works on Their Own Batch of Mozz
You've read about my obsession. Well, Tuesday night was the class. And what fun. The Residence provided some bread, fresh basil, sundried tomatoes in oil and vino. I came with the whole milk (and rennet, citric acid, water and salt)....

I quickly did one batch so everyone could see how easy it really is. I gave out papers with instructions and contact info for New England Cheese Supply Company. Then I poured 5 more gallons of milk into five pots on the stove (that was a trick, coming up with five pots to use--thank you to Lauren and to Michelle Marie (she of lasagne post fame)--I couldn't have done it without you two). Here's how I managed to have five gallons of milk turning into mozzarella at (nearly) the same time. As the pots heated, I had everyone mix their citric acid into the non-chlorinated water, then I stirred it into the milk..(Ha. That was a little nervy--at one point I was worried people were handing me rennet and not citric acid! But my students were brilliant. No worries.)

As each pot reached 90 degrees, I ran it over to a hot pad at each station (two people per station, one had three--a dad and his two daughters...how great was that?), where my students swirled the rennet (which they had dissolved in water already) into the milk. And then: Step away from the pot.

I think I had almost everyone give it another minute (easier to have it too firm than soft)..while it was hectic, we all got mozzarella cheese in the end. We enjoyed warm mozzarella cheese bruschetta with some wine and great company and people seemed to LOVE it.

Next up? Pasta making? Marcella's Lasagne making? Pizzas? I would love to teach a class every week!

(Ps. Thanks go to Eric for taking these shots...everyone pitched in!)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Slight Change for Comments

Just want to let anyone reading know I've added word verification to the comments...I have been inundated with spam comments in the past two weeks and this is a simple attempt to reduce those to as close to zero as possible..

Hope no one minds and that you still keep reading and feasting.


Friday, August 13, 2010

All In on Lasagne with Bolognese


I have recounted before that my family loves food...there's a lot of Italian in the blood. We all cook pretty well. We grew up when my parents had a gourmet dinner group, and we were the taste testers...my mom did dress rehearsals on us before she would commit to a menu (I still remember her not wanting to make something for company because we hadn't tried it before...perhaps that's when my how-hard-could-it-be approach started, because my company often gets new recipes..).

So a couple of weeks ago we had our family reunion...as many as 19 of us gather in any number of places (five years ago we were lucky enough to gather in Tuscany) for a week. We hang out, we do stuff and we cook. Oh, boy, do we cook.

It just so happens my sister in law--German-born, but lived in Italy for years before she became part of our family--made a classic Italian lasagne. No ricotta. No mozzarella. Perfect Bolognese sauce mixed with bechamel and layered layered layered...she used a touch of tallegio we had on hand. Her daughter, my niece, claimed to have eaten five, count 'em, FIVE pieces once. Now Isa is just a slip of a thing and I couldn't believe her.

Until I had the lasagne. I had 1 1/2 pieces. The kids must all have had three pieces...It was light, so nice after all the heavily-laden lasagne we all know and, admittedly, at times enjoy. It's just that nothing compares to this.

Bryn has been begging for that since we returned. Eva sent me the recipe--it is that basic: make a good Bolognese, make a good bechamel, layer with parmesan and a bit of other cheese if you have it (second cheese purely optional).

Okay. So. I decided to make it. I pulled out Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. That woman is good. Really good. (Read a  NYT 2008 piece with Marcella and her husband, Victor. And say what?! She lives in Longboat Key! And I left Florida without meeting her...what was I thinking?)

I love her Bolognese: saute onion, carrots and celery in oil and butter. Add 3/4 # meat (I used ground beef and pork, both leaner that she recommends, but that's just me), salt and pepper. Cook til all pink is gone. Top with 1 cup milk (just enough to cover, if you're guessing) and a grating of nutmeg, let simmer to evaporate. Top with 1 c. white wine...simmer to evaporate. Add 1 1/2 cups canned chopped tomato ( I used Fire Roasted from Muir Glen...would have loved to have used San Marzano...)

Then let it simmer. And simmer (very very very slowly...) In the end, mine cooked more than four hours (add 1/2 c. water from time to time if it looks like it's drying out)...

Make a 3-cup batch of bechamel--again, I can't recommend Marcella's method enough. She has the technique down perfectly, and the resulting sauce was silky smooth and thick. Put a bit of bechamel in the bottom of the pan then combine the rest with the Bolognese. Now layer pasta with sauce and Parmesan (and tallegio if you have it--that's Eva's addition, btw).

But wait, there's more.

Marcella (oh, trust me, as we proceeded through the day, I got to addressing her on a first name basis) used spinach pasta. Fresh spinach pasta, because as she says:

It might take a little more time to run pasta dough through a machine ...than to buy a box of the ready-made kind, but there is nothing packed in a box that can lead to the flavor of the lasagne you can produce in your kitchen. Using clunky, store-bought lasagne may save a little time, but you will be sadly shortchanged by the results.

Well, no way I was going to shortchange myself with clunky store-bought lasagne. No sir, not me. And (say it with me now): HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

Truth be told making the noodles is not at all difficult. I chose not to make spinach noodles, because I didn't want to deviate too much from Eva's. I knew Bryn would be comparing. So I wasn't even adding spinach. Making dough, rolling it out in the machine--really, I am telling the truth when I say that is the fast part. I got lovely, paper thin noodles to use.

Then I got to Marcella's instructions to parboil the noodles, then RINSE THEM UNDER COLD RUNNING WATER, one at a time and "rub delicately, as though you were doing fine hand laundry. Squeeze each strip very gently in your hands (Me: you know, as if you were wringing it) then spread it flat on the towel to dry."

Um. Say WHAT, Marcella?!?

Sigh. But me? I go big or go home. I wasn't going to go through all this effort only to skip this important Hazan step. Marcella refers to it as a "nuisance but necessary." She says it will become mushy if you don't parboil it and if you don't rinse it, the starch will make it stick to the towels.

Sigh. Did I say that? Because up until this point, I was all: hey, homemade sauce, homemade lasagne, NOT A PROBLEM.

This step got me a little flustered...but I did persevere.
Parboiled noodles. All. Over. The. Counters.

I invited Michelle Marie over, because she had treated Bryn to dinner one night when I was out of town and G was at poker. Bryn was home for dinner...and G? Well, not only was he at poker last night, but he picked yesterday to start Atkins.

His loss, my gain by at least two pieces of lasagne. I'll see your no-carb silliness and raise you by two squares of lasagne, in fact. I am going ALL IN ON LASAGNE.

Because when all was said and done? One word for this: ethereal. The paper-thin pasta sheets had kind of melted into each other, but were still toothsome (okay, love that word)--silky, light, delicious. It was as though simple ingredients had come together to throw a symphony.

We ate and ate and ate some more. Michelle Marie brought some garden tomatoes from a friend, we had nothing but a simple salad and some good wine with this and it was one of the best meals I'd had in eons. Company helped.

For the record, Bryn MISSED the boxed noodles...she didn't like not having that thick pasta layer...but to me, all those layers (I made at least 8 layers) added up to more than the sum of its parts...I didn't miss a thick noodle at all. And ever the palate, Bryn noticed that I used leaner meat than Eva. That girl doesn't miss a trick...If she doesn't become a famous actress or a famous singer/musician, her fallback career is chef. I think she'll go far in any of those.

Next time, I will try the spinach noodles, and I might skip that "nuisance" step of the parboil. Maybe my palate is too pedestrian to notice the not-washed noodles? I know the parboil/rinse method produces one incredible dish...Two other lasagne recipes in the book say to follow the parboil/rinse method and one, the lasagne with ricotta pesto, let's you off the hook with just a quick boil.

Hm. Marcella? Are you out there? Can I skip that step???

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Plum Study

I bit into this plum and pretty much rushed for the camera. Can you believe this color??? I don't know what kind of plum it is, but I'll be getting more. Today. For me.     

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Obsession and Batch #5

Batch #5

I--perhaps we all do this--I go through bouts of obsession. I've been obsessed with scuba diving. Learning a language. Reading every last book an author has written (Rumer Godden. Still working on that). Knitting. Watercolors.

Obsessions can be lovely things (um, when not destructive, let me clarify). Obsessions consume you so you drink up and drink in everything you can about your new love. Revelations come to you--once I realized every single pattern in knitting was simply a variation of knit or purl, I knitted some incredibly complex things for a beginner--because I was no longer intimidated.

This month's current obsession has been fresh homemade mozzarella. I was late to the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle party. That's the book by Barbara Kingsolver, the one where she and her family "retire" (in quotes--retire to work incredibly hard) to a farm in southwest Virginia. For one year, the family decides to eat entirely local and forgo anything not local (I think everyone got to pick a luxury item--coffee, for example). In the course of the year, they learn to make mozzarella--and it sounds incredibly simple.

So since I obsess about things, especially about the food I read about in books, I decided I need to make mozzarella. And in the course of that decision? I also committed to TEACH a class about mozzarella making.

How hard can it be, right? (And that? That's my life's mantra.) The only ingredients are whole milk, citric acid, rennet and salt. That's IT.

Well. Batch #1. Nice, but solid--too much like string cheese texture (firmer than fresh; too dry). Batch #2. Although the bottle was marked NOT ultra-pasteurized, the milk just curdled. Some reading says even those milks are occasionally over heated and could have been too much like ultra pasteurized. I actually went right out that evening and bought yet another gallon (for Batch #3) of a different brand. I was gentler. I kneaded. I drained the whey (the liquid left over when the cheese curdles. I have seen a lot of curds and whey this week.), I kneaded again...it stretched some and still? Still too hard and dry (not hard--cheese for sure, but not that soft, lovely cheese that is fresh mozz.)...Yesterday I made another batch (Batch #4), still with the inexpensive, store brand not ultra-pasteurized. I went upstairs into the lovely kitchen we have (where I'll be making the mozz in two weeks time)...STILL not what I would be proud of--yes, still cheese, still tasty but NOT RIGHT.

In the meantime I found a video of Paula Harris, the Cheese Maven, on the website at New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. I watched it once. I watched it twice. She uses gloves. (What, was I too proud to wear gloves? Did I think that real cheesemakers don't use gloves? If I did think that then I was wrong, but maybe I was trying to be this guy at a cheesemaking party in Italy. I so wish I had  been invited to that party...that water looks intensely hot and that cheese looks incredibly tender and delicious...those guys are appreciating their food. I love Italians...But I digress.)

Yesterday I went to Earth Fare. I bought a gallon of milk in glass jars from Virginia and another gallon of milk from a farm just south of here in South Carolina.

I could hardly wait to try it. It was perfection. The curds came together and stretched just the way they were supposed to. I used the gloves and quickly folded and kneaded, distributing the heat through the cheese. It turned glossy. It stayed soft. I tasted it and quickly ran it down to the office here in the building so everyone could taste warm mozzarella cheese.

Obsession? Conquered. Now to do it over and over and over again. Maybe my next career will be cheesemaker and cheesemonger. Cool.

Last Night's Dinner...and lunch...and breakfast
Now I think I need a big burger. I haven't eaten meat since I started my mozzarella batches.

The Mozzarella Obsession

1.5 tsp. citric acid dissolved in 1/4 cup non-chlorinated water (most bottled waters: Poland Springs works) (have ready)
1 gallon whole milk, NOT ultra pasteurized and coming from as close to home as possible (I am completely convinced that this will give you the best, non-string-cheese-like results)
1/4 rennet tablet dissolved in 1/4 cup non-chlorinated water (have ready)
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt (not iodized)

Equipment: large stainless steel stockpot, slotted spoon, thermometer (get one that reads as low as 80 to 100 degrees F), colander, bowl (microwave safe), gloves (You can find everything at NE Cheese Supply Co.--well, maybe not the gloves, but I haven't checked...def. the citric acid, the rennet, a thermometer....)

1. Stir dissolved citric acid into milk in stock pot. Place over medium heat, stir to distribute citric acid and clip thermometer to side of pot. (No clip? Just keep testing milk as it heats. Don't walk away!) Stir gently now and then or simply jiggle the pot (learned that from Paula Harris video).

2.When milk reaches 88 to 90 degrees F, add dissolved rennet and stir thoroughly, but gently and only for several seconds. Reduce heat to low. Now DON'T TOUCH THE POT. Set timer for 5 minutes. When you check the milk after 5 minutes, it should have come together in a smooth mass, looking very much like yogurt.Turn heat off.

3. Use long knife and cut the solidified milk into cubes. Place colander over a bowl and place bowl right next to stockpot. Use slotted spoon to get all the curds into the strainer. Gently tilt strainer, letting whey run off as much as possible. Dump whey back into stockpot and gently turn curds into bowl.

4. Start folding curds over on themselves (do this in the bowl--it keeps the mess down)--you are encouraging them to form one piece, although curds will still escape. Fold over a few times. Drain whey again. Place bowl in micowave for 1 minute (on high). Put your gloves on and (with cheese curds still in the bowl) fold curds over again and again, working quickly to distribute heat evenly through cheese. It should be coming together even more. Drain as needed.

5. Place bowl back in microwave and heat on high for 30 seconds. With your gloves still on, fold cheese over and over again, draining several times. Pat cheese ball a bit flat and sprinkle with salt. Fold over on itself several times again.

6. Place bowl back in microwave for another 30 seconds on high. With gloves STILL on, fold over and over on itself again--at this point the cheese should no longer look "curdy" but should look smooth. It will be stretchy, too--fold over and over on itself (in or out of bowl at this point--there's no more whey coming out of the ball now) until the mozzarella cheese is smooth and shiny. Shape into ball, place on plate. Slice and eat warm RIGHT AWAY or wrap it tightly in plastic and chill.

Practice makes perfect. Batch #6 Chez Babette will be tomorrow. No, I am NOT tired of mozzarella yet.

DEFINITELY check the Paula Harris video out...seeing is believing.