So much cheese… so little time

You never know when good fortune will cross your path.  For some time now I’ve been making my own yogurt, thanks to the ease and convenience of the ole Instant Pot. Once committed to the process, my results have become far superior to any of the usual store bought varieties.  When I discovered one  batch could yield two distinct styles I got even more excited:  I’d have a quart of fine yogurt for daily use, plus a good supply of thick, creamy Greek yogurt worthy of cheese status.

During my early Greek yogurt period, I came across Home Cheese Making (3rd edition) by Ricki CarrolI, while browsing books at a used book sale. (Ricki has a 4th edition coming out  December 2018).  It looked nearly new (good/bad sign, whatever), I added it to my stack and brought it home.  Several days later, I opened the book and knew this was no mistake. I haven’t met a cheese that I didn’t like, and here was an opportunity to see where all this could possibly go.

Ricki’s well laid-out book takes a complicated subject and breaks it down into manageable chunks. It’s geared to the novice as well as the skilled cheese maker, with a wide range of cheeses to consider from soft fresh cheeses like queso fresco, mozzarella, and feta, to ripened cheeses like cheddar, gouda, brie, and much more.  Here, I could begin to understand and more fully appreciate the art of cheese making—and I was ready.

You can get started in cheese making with a few basic kitchen supplies.  A good digital thermometer is a must, plus a colander, cheesecloth, a long spoon or spatula, the usual measuring cups and spoons, a long knife for cutting the curd, a stainless steel pot, and a reliable cooking unit that maintains a steady temperature.

Each cheese requires specific additives for its success. Some of the basics are: a starter such as yogurt, a mesophilic or thermophilic starter; liquid rennet for coagulation; calcium chloride for curd formation; lipase powder for flavor; and cheese salt.

Sourcing cheese making supplies can be a hassle, but I’ve had good luck with Ricki’s website, New England Cheese Making Supply Co. It is a reliable resource for cheese making information and supplies.

Since cheese making can be intimidating, I centered on a realistic mindset:  cheese has been around for centuries, surely I can figure this out.  Granted, there’s a large learning curve—at this point I’m happy mastering fresh cheeses.  I’d tinkered with ricotta and mozzarella before, and I welcomed the opportunity to give them another try and add them to my cheese line-up. I was starting over but making progress—they both turned out well.  ✓✓

Thus far, my biggest success comes from making feta cheese.

I was intrigued by the additional brining process, since feta’s flavor develops more fully the longer it ages in brine.  This small extra step felt like a giant leap into cheese making. ✓

If you happen to read the previous post,  Feta Focus, you’ve absorbed a few feta details.  Essentially, Greek feta has earned its own provenance: much like a European wine appellation, it must be made with either sheep and/or goat’s milk. I’m keeping it simple at this point, I am happy  staying with familiar and readily available:  whole cow’s (not ultra-pasteurized) milk.

Feta cheese is fairly simple to make. I used a sous vide with my first batch, which was entirely unnecessary. The second time, I filled my well-scrubbed kitchen sink with 90° hot water, placed the covered milk-filled stainless steel pot into the warm water bath, and stirred occasionally until it reached 86°.   That’s when the starter culture and ultimately the rennet are introduced and the curd making process unfolds.  I added more regulated hot water as needed to maintain the temperature. Once the curds have formed, the process moves along fairly quickly.

It’s important to allow time for the curds to drain well.

Once draining has slowed significantly and forming a mass, the cheese is placed in molds for shaping and further straining.  It’s then briefly placed in a brine solution for a quick rest to stabilize the feta before turning out onto a mat to dry.  

The cheese is then returned to the brine for aging and storage. The feta is ready to eat in 4 to 5 days. 

Homemade Feta Cheese

Ingredients
1 gallon whole milk (avoid UHT or ultra-pasteurized milk), sheep and/or goat’s milk
1/8 tsp. lipase power, for flavor (diluted in ¼ cup unchlorinated water, let stand 20 minutes)
1/8 tsp. calcium chloride, for curd formation (diluted in 1/4 cup unchlorinated water)
1/4 tsp. mesophilic starter culture, MM100, bacteria to convert lactose to lactic acid
1/2 tsp. liquid rennet, to coagulate milk (diluted in 1/4 cup cool unchlorinated water)
1/4 cup salt for brining/storage

Utensils:  Digital thermometer, large stainless steel pot, large spoon & perforated scoop, colander, measuring cup & spoons, curd knife like a boning knife, cheesecloth or butter muslin, 2 perforated molds, sushi mat.

Instructions

  1. Warm the milk in a stainless steel pot to 86°F. As milk is heating, stir in the diluted lipase and the diluted calcium chloride.
  2. When brought to temperature, sprinkle in the starter culture and stir Cover and let milk ripen for 1 hour.
  3. Add the diluted rennet and stir gently with spoon in an up-and-down motion (not a stirring motion) for several minutes. Cover and let set undisturbed at 86°F for 1 hour until it has gelled, separates from side of pot, and there is a clean break in the curd when sliced with a knife.
  4. Using a long knife cut the curd at an angle. Turn the pot and slice into 1/2-inch cubes all the way to the bottom. Repeat if necessary. Let rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Gently stir the curds on and off for 20-30 minutes. As the curds firm and retract, stir more briskly.
  6. Line a large colander with a double layer of cheesecloth or butter muslin and place a bowl under it to catch the whey. Scoop in the curds and let excess whey drain off 2 hours.
  7. Once dripping has stopped divide into 2 cheesecloth lined perforated molds and weigh down. Turn often in molds to drain for 4-6 hours, regularly rotating to weight evenly until no more liquid collects.
  8. To stabilize feta, place the blocks in brine and weight down to keep submerged  1 Tbsp. salt per 1 cup unchlorinated water to cover for 4-5 hours.
  9. Remove feta to mat, cover loosely with cloth, refrigerate for 1-3 days to drain and air dry. Turn several time daily. Brine can be filtered and reused.
  10. Return feta to storage brine. Refrigerate 4-5 days, or up to 30 days. Yield: 1 pound.

Feta Focus

Feta is a fresh, briny cheese often associated with foods rooted in the sun-drenched Mediterranean cuisines – think olives, capers and vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  Here in the US, feta is often made from cow’s milk which produces a pleasantly mild, slightly tart cheese.

To be called feta in the European Union, it must originate in Greece and be limited to sheep and or goat’s milk, thus offering a rich panorama of flavors and textures. Depending on process and aging time in brine, Greek feta can vary in saltiness, range from soft to hard textured, and taste from tart to tangy.

One popular treatment is to submerge bite-sized feta cubes in olive oil along with assorted herbs, garlic and such, and allow the marinade to infuse into the cheese; the longer the better.  That is certainly lovely with a robust cheese that responds to big flavors, but beware of overpowering a mild flavored feta.  To better showcase feta’s more subdued qualities, I prefer to deconstruct the whole concept.

For this simple method, begin with a block of feta, slice it for easy serving, sprinkle it with herbs and seasonings, and drizzle it lightly with olive oil. Cover it and allow the flavors to meld for an hour or so in the fridge.

When ready to enjoy, bring the marinated feta to room temperature, perhaps drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it appears dry, and garnish with fresh herbs.  Serve with an assortment of olives, crusty bread, pita crisps or crackers, pass a bowl or crunchy radishes, and call it good!

Herb Marinated Feta

Ingredients
1 lb. fresh feta cheese
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon savory, rosemary, or oregano
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh thyme
Accompaniments: assorted olives, fresh bread or pita crisps, crunchy radishes

Instructions

  1. Slice the feta and arrange it on a serving plate.
  2. Sprinkle the cheese with herbs and red pepper flakes. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.  Cover and chill for an hour or longer.
  3. To assemble, drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it looks dry, dust with grinds of salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh thyme, assorted olives.
  4. Serve with crunchy bread, crackers or pita crisps, and a bowl of fresh radishes.   Serves 4.

Salsa and the Art of Fermentation

The tomato crop is just about over and done with for this highly productive year.  Markets everywhere were awash with heavy, ripe tomatoes.  Across the street, my wonderful neighbor had such a bumper crop on her hands that she kept a steady stream coming, in hopes I would use more.

Nothing says summer like sweet, juicy tomatoes fresh off the vine. They were everywhere this year and they went into everything!

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One noteworthy success worth sharing came by way of an outstanding homemade fermented salsa, which started out as a fairly basic version.  Earlier, I had tested a batch of fermented baby cucumbers and hot peppers, and they were crazy good. The cukes were reminiscent of old fashioned half-sours. Well, why not salsa?

The ferment process is fairly intuitive; there is no cooking required, just a scrupulously clean work space and tools.  All it takes is a little time and salt to transform vegetables into a new realm of complex flavor and nutrients. The salt acts as a natural preserving agent while tiny microbes busily gobble up the sugar and transform it into lactic acid—which in turn serves as a natural preservative. It’s a happy environment for beneficial bacteria to flourish, to keep harmful bacterial in check, and to become rich in probiotics.

There are a few simple tricks that will help ensure proper fermentation and prevent the risk of food-borne illness. As with all pickles, the vegetables need to be kept completely submerged below the surface of the liquid solution.

C02 builds up during fermentation and those bubbles need to go somewhere. I started out with the jar loosely covered with cheesecloth and lid, set in a small bowl for run-off, and knew I could do better.Salsa Ferment.ph

I found a handy fermentation lid that works like a charm and I’ve since learned there are many similar devices on the market.

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Once a mason-type jar is properly filled, the lid is screwed on and water is poured into the well on top which creates a vapor lock.  A small cap is then placed over a center vent which allows pressure to release safely.

When the salsa is prepared and in the jar, it’s a simple matter of topping it off with brine to secure it all.  It is left to ferment on the counter for 2-5 days or longer, depending on the temperature of the room. The warmer it is, the quicker the process.

As it ferments the salsa mellows and develops robust but nuanced character; the harsh saltiness shifts into an intriguing, pleasantly sour taste. The longer the salsa ferments, the more pronounced the flavor. Once achieved, enjoy the salsa as is or refrigerate for longer storage. It will hold for several months.

Likely it won’t last that long, though.

Naturally Fermented Salsa

 Ingredients
1 cup onion, dice
3 cups tomatoes, seed & dice
1 cup mixed peppers, seed & dice (serrano, jalapeno, pasilla are good)
2 cloves garlic, mince
Handful of fresh cilantro
Lime juice to taste (start with ½ lime)
1 teaspoon salt
Brine ratio: 1-2 teaspoons salt to 1/4 cup water

Instructions

  1. Mix together all the ingredients including the salt.
  2. Place the salsa in a 1 quart mason jar, pressing down to release some liquid. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid.  Place a lid or other weight to submerge the salsa.  Finish with a bit of extra brine if needed and top off throughout fermentation process.
  3. Ferment for 2+ days at room temperature (mine took 5 days, then sat in fridge 4 more days before using).
  4. When  the fermentation period is complete, the salsa is ready to eat or can be stored in the refrigerator for several months.  Yield: about 1 quart

Socca: Guilt-free, Gluten-free

Ever need a flat bread or cracker with character to fill in as a snack with drinks or as an alternative bite with soup or salad?  This one is even gluten-free.

Socca is a fascinating chickpea based ‘crepe’ popular in the south of France.  In northern Italy, Farinata is a variation sold along-side pizza and focaccia.  No shaping or patting required, Socca is a simple batter built on chickpea flour, salt, water, and a bit of olive oil.

If time permits, let the batter rest overnight for it to relax and thicken. The flavor and texture will improve, resulting in a creamy interior and crisp exterior texture.  When ready, spread it into a pizza pan and bake in hot oven to set. Remove briefly, add toppings, and return to finish.

As you can imagine, this chickpea treat is full-flavored and needs little more than a light topping of olive oil, a sprinkling of sea salt, fresh herbs, perhaps a few olives for embellishment…  Rosemary is one such herb that is assertive enough to do well here.

Or, if you are feeling adventurous, try Zhoug Sauce , a highly addictive condiment from Yemen made with cilantro, jalapeno peppers, chile flakes, garlic, cardamom, and cumin seed.  I was lucky enough to discover the sauce at Trader Joe’s recently and it was a big hit on a recent Socca batch.  Be prepared, Zhoug packs quite a punch.  I liked it so much, I even added feta cheese.  So much for keeping it simple.

Socca

Inspired by King Arthur Flour, Socca

Ingredients

Batter
3 cups chickpea flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/3 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil, more for the pan
Toppings
½ cup olive oil or sauce of choice
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
3/4 cup pitted and sliced Greek olives
1 cup feta cheese (optional)

Directions

  1. Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add the water and olive oil and whisk until smooth. Cover and let the batter rest at room temperature for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Spread 9” pizza pan liberally with olive oil. . Place the pan in the oven to preheat for 5 minutes.
  3. Carefully remove the pan from the oven and pour in the batter, spreading to edges in an even layer. Bake for 7 minutes and remove from the oven.
  4. Lightly spread top with olive oil, fresh herbs or sauce of choice. Add feta cheese if desired, and return to oven for 7 minutes longer until the surface takes on color and browns. If the top doesn’t brown, turn the oven from bake to broil until crisp and blistered.
  5. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges to serve warm. The top and bottom should be crisp, and the center creamy and moist.
  6. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week. Reheat in a preheated 400°F oven for 10 minutes before serving. Yield: 3 – 9” rounds cut into portions.

 

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

For a casual brunch following St. Paddy’s Day, I opted to configure some of my fabulous corned beef hash into a riff on Scotch Eggs.

Often eaten as a cold snack, Scotch Eggs are hard cooked eggs wrapped in sausage and deep fried.   As such, my version included just enough of the corned beef hash to tidily encase a hard cooked egg. It was then treated to a gentle sauté in a thin layer of vegetable oil until hot and crispy.

Since I had hard cooked eggs ready to go, this treat took no time at all.  My yolks were more cooked than I normally prefer— the perfect enhancement would be a slightly moist yolk.

Once I had a grip on the egg preparation this was a fairly effortless undertaking. The lively plates consisted of the highly entertaining Irish Scotch Eggs along with a mild mustard sauce, pickled onions, radishes, sharp cheddar cheese and warm soda bread slathered with cranberry apple jam.  Irish Eggs,  Scotch Eggs, Irish-Scotch Eggs… enjoy and call them whatever makes you happy!

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

Ingredients (per serving)
½ cup heaping, Corned Beef Hash (see blog recipe)
1 hard cooked egg, peeled
1/3 cup flour (approx.) lightly seasoned with salt and paprika for dredging
2 tablespoons vegetable oil for pan
Accompaniments:  mustard sauce (see below), pickled onions, cheddar cheese, radishes

 Directions

  1. Heat a skillet with oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Place flour in wide bowl and lightly dust the egg with flour.
  3. Mound hash in palm of hand and make an egg-sized indentation in the center. Insert the hard cooked egg into the center and mold the hash around the egg to completely encase it. Lightly moisten hands with water if it becomes sticky.
  4. Carefully dust the exterior with flour and place egg in hot pan. As the surface begins to take on color, roll it over slightly with spatula, continue until entire surface is crisp and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes.  Serve with accompaniments of choice.

Light Mustard Sauce: combine ¼ cup sour cream and ¼ cup mayonnaise, blend in 1 tablespoon deli mustard, or to taste.

Marbled Tea Eggs, pretty tasty

Since Easter is rolling around the corner, now’s the time to take advantage of the crates of eggs stacked at the market, and get ready for the big holiday weekend.

Beyond colorful dyed eggs, here’s a creative and tasty variation for beautifying hard cooked eggs. In China, marbled tea eggs have been around for centuries. The concept is quite simple.  Simmer a flavorful marinade of soy, oolong tea, cinnamon, star anise, and perhaps a bit of orange.  Our marinade incorporates the heavy smokiness of lapsang souchong tea, but any oolong will do. Using the back of a spoon, crack the shells of hard cooked eggs into a series of spider webs, then soak them in the marinade.

The original marble tea eggs in China were simmered in a marinade for quite a while, then left to soak even longer. These days less tough and stinky eggs can be crafted with a brief simmer in the soy blend, then refrigerated in the marinade for a mere day or two.

Half the fun is the final egg peel unveiling the outcome of this process. It is always a surprise, perfected by practice. The soy marinade saturates via the egg cracks, artfully coloring and flavoring the eggs. For darker marbling and more pronounced flavor, allow a couple of days.  Pretty and tasty.

Marbled Tea Eggs

Ingredients
6-12 hard cooked eggs with shells intact, chilled (see below)
Marinade
1/2 cup soy sauce (I use a deep, rich mushroom soy sauce found at Asian markets)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups water, divided (more for the pot)
2 Lapsang souchong tea bags, oolong or other black tea
2 star anise, broken up
1 cinnamon stick
2 – 3” x ½” strips peel from mandarin or other thin skinned orange

Instructions

  1. Gently crack shells of hard cooked eggs all over with the back of a spoon to create webbing. Do not tap too hard.
  2. Prepare marinade
    Pour 1 cup boiling water over the tea bags and steep for 5-10 minutes.
    In a pan that will hold up the number of eggs in one layer, heat the soy sauce, salt, sugar to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add the brewed tea, additional 1 cup water, cinnamon stick, star anise, orange peel, and simmer gently 10-15 minutes to allow flavors to blend.
  3. Marbleize the eggs
    Gently lower the cracked hard cooked eggs in a single layer into the heated marinade and add enough water to barely cover the eggs and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool in liquid (about 1 hour).
  4. Marinade the eggs
    Store the eggs and marinade in a covered container in the refrigerator, discarding cinnamon and other seasonings. Let marinate in refrigerator at least overnight. For darker marbling and more pronounced flavor allow up to 2 days.  Peel the eggs and serve. Yield: 6-12.
    Note: reserve the marinade; it can be re-used.

Lip Smacking Good: Boston Brown Bread

As mentioned in the previous post, when March approaches I get nostalgic. Much of this is brought on by St. Paddy’s Day, since I was raised outside of Boston.  I recall it as a hugely anticipated day-long event packed with celebrations, all culminating with aromatic corned beef, cabbage, and all the trimmings.

Another much loved food from those days is irreplaceable Boston Brown Bread, a must have accompaniment with famed Boston Baked Beans. Whenever I see a brown bread recipe, I automatically save it.  I’m not sure why I collect them, because there is nothing complicated about it:  just a basic bread using baking soda for leavener, with a combination of hearty flours like rye and wheat—and of course cornmeal.  Buttermilk is the standard liquid, and molasses is a key ingredient which supplies mild sweetness along with its signature flavor. Raisins or currants are negotiable.

Boston Brown Bread is a quirky boiled/steamed bread with a history that likely goes back centuries.  In more recent times, the practice of using a coffee can as a cooking mold has become linked with its now characteristic round shape.

I must confess until this March I had never made Boston Brown Bread.  I may have been caught up in its mystic, but the idea of boiling bread in a water bath for an hour just seemed a little too remote.

That is all pre-multi-cooker.  Now, I am so smitten by the Instant Pot’s flexibility that I seek out challenges—and what a ride it gave me this past weekend. Most certainly the IP was created for Boston Brown Bread.

This is inspired by Jasper White’s Boston Brown Bread recipe, which I have adapted to the PC.  The batter is divided between two 15 ounce pinto bean cans.  It’s a good idea not to fill the tins any more than 2/3 full to allow for rising space. Cover them with foil and secure with twine.  In 30 minutes,  the loaves are ‘baked’ and beautiful.

I will not gush, but will simply state that this is a bread worth investing in a multi-cooker.  It is just as good as I remembered!   Brown bread is great warmed in the morning, spread with butter or cream cheese.  It makes a great mid-day snack, an accompaniment to many entrees, and it is lip-smacking good as an ice cream sandwich.

Boston Brown Bread, PC

Adapted from Jasper White’s Boston Brown Bread

Ingredients
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup dark rye flour
½ cup medium grind corn meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup molasses or ¼ cup molasses + 2 tablespoons apple butter
1 cup buttermilk, or a half and half combo of milk + yogurt
½ cup raisins or currants
Accessories:  2 – 15-1/2 ounce cans top and labels removed and cleaned

Directions

  1. Grease the insides of two cans with butter or baker’s spray.
  2. In multi-cooker, insert trivet and pour in about 6 cups water.  Set pot to Saute or Simmer to begin heating the water.
  3. Combine the dry ingredients with a whisk in a mixing bowl.  Stir in the liquid, then fold in the raisins.
  4. Divide the batter between the molds. It should fill molds about 2/3s full.  Secure the tops with foil and tie with twine.
  5. Place the cans into the pot, adding more water if necessary to fill ½ way up the sides of the cans.  Do not fill the pot beyond maximum capacity mark.  Set to High Pressure and cook for 30 minutes.
  6. Allow bread to rest in pot with lid sealed for 10 minutes then slowly release pressure. Test for doneness:  a skewer inserted in center should come out clean.  Transfer molds to cooling rack and remove the foil covers.  Cool for about 45 minutes before unmolding.  Yield: 2 loaves.