Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

For Love of Fermentation

I have often read that restaurant Noma in Copenhagen is the best restaurant in the world now that El Bulli has closed. These all-time-best commendations always annoy me because I always suspect that the real best restaurant in the world is some Thai or Indonesian street stand that makes something out of nearly nothing and does it perfectly. That said, having read Noma’s new guide to fermentation, I am willing to believe that Noma might be the best restaurant in the world, because they have certainly expanded the age-old art of fermentation beyond anything I have previously encountered. The book covers all forms of fermentation except the purely alcoholic ones that produce wines and beers. There are detailed sections on lactic fermentation, kombucha, vinegars, kogi, miso, shoyu, garum, and the enzymatic blackening that produces black garlic and much more if you let it. There are fascinating asides on how to use the resulting liquids and solids in dishes and as seasonings. They observe that, to their own surprise, the variety and depth of flavor produced is so profound that they may become a largely vegetarian restaurant.

Many people think of fermented products largely in health terms, a “gut shot” of probiotics. But playing with the Noma ideas, I’m experimenting with the essences that result when fermented products are cooked down. They are no longer live, but they’ Delicious. I love to keep chicken and beef glacé in the freezer to add depth, body, and a suave finish to even the simplest sauces, and cooked-down ferments may fill a similar role.

There is commentary on things that I will never intentionally try, such as the culinary use of insects. I’m well aware of all the arguments in favor, but I’m too acculturated against it to approach it with an open mind. So, their cricket garum isn’t going to be an item in my diet anytime soon. But less rigid cooks may want to experiment.

Under Noma’s influence, the large insulated but unheated shed that I use for painting has become a busy fermentation facility.  I have so many experiments going that I will never have time to write about most of them, so buy the book.  I don’t accept review copies, and when I review a book, I paid the same price for it that you will pay. There is no other way that I can realistically assess the value/money ratio.  About this one, I can only say that it is very hard to put a price on a book that can invigorate your entire daily cooking routine and open up a new range of flavors.

 

The Last Fruit of the Year

Most of the trees in my yard are fruit trees, and many of them are coming into full maturity and bearing potential. I was looking forward to a succession of harvests this summer, when fate intervened in the form of one small, scrawny squirrel.  She showed up under my birdfeeder last winter, looking like she was near death. It was fun to see her crouched outside the kitchen door eating seeds, and I even put out a few special treats for her. She grew fat and sleek, and in late spring she reappeared after a disappearance with five baby squirrels bouncing around behind her.  They had a very high adorable factor, and when they destroyed some green fruit I did not make too big a fuss about it. Then they disappeared, and I began to see squirrels around the rest of my neighborhood. Then, predictably, mother squirrel showed up with six new babies.  The remaining fruit was ripe, and they harvested it all. I mean all of it. A large prune plum tree, strung with plums so heavily that the branches looked like blue rope, was stripped in a couple of days. I was able to eat about five peaches before they were gone. Apples gone. Cherries gone.  I was reduced to buying local fruit at the farmers market, a sad comedown for somebody who has been tending fruit trees for the last decade.

Fortunately, it turns out that squirrels don’t like quinces.  My tree was loaded, and I set out to discover what could be done with quinces. I made a ton of chutney, and made some membrillo to serve with cheese,  but my favorite use is as a base for a flourless chocolate torte.  The original idea came from one of my favorite food sites, Food 52, and was based on eggplant.  You can read it here: https://food52.com/recipes/77833-ian-knauer-s-chocolate-eggplant-cakes. I made it once as written and liked it, but I felt that it could be improved upon. Quinces have an aromatic overtone and a lot of pectin, which helps this cake set.
You will need a special ingredient, black cocoa powder. I use Onyx brand. The cake is not the same without it. I keep it lower-carb with the use of special sweeteners which can only be obtained online: Sola sweetener and Truly Zero sucralose. If you choose to use other sweeteners from the grocery store, be aware that they are probably not really low carb at all, because most of them contain ingredients that can raise your blood sugar. Also, the texture and mouthfeel may be drastically affected. If you eat sugar, you can forget those two ingredients and sweeten it with sugar to taste. Otherwise, the only significant  carbohydrates present are from the chocolate and quince, and quince is not a sweet fruit.

Start with one large or two smaller quinces.  Scrub the fuzz off with a scrub brush, but don’t peel them. Most of the pectin is in the peel. Cut them in quarters, cut the core out, and steam them for about 25 minutes or until  easily penetrated with a fork. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line an 8” cake pan with parchment paper. In a double boiler or (very carefully) in a microwave at lower power, melt 2 4oz bars of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate and one full-size bar of excellent dark chocolate, 84-85% cacao content. Put the soft quince flesh in the blender and grind to a perfectly smooth paste with enough heavy cream to keep the mixture blending smoothly, usually about a cup. A Vitamix does a great job of this. Quinces are pretty fibrous, so make sure it is blended smooth. Scrape the mixture out into a mixing bowl. It will already be stiffening from all the pectin, so use a heavy wooden spoon for the rest of the mixing. Beat in eight egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 2 teaspoons vanilla,  a few scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg, 1/2 cup Sola sweetener, and 7 drops Truly Zero sweetener. Otherwise, sweeten with sugar to taste. Beat in the melted chocolate, and last, beat in half a cup of black cocoa powder. It will be really stiff by now and need a fair amount of muscle power. Taste, only if you are okay with raw egg, and adjust the sweetness if needed. This amount of sweetener gives a semisweet result.

Scrape into the parchment-lined pan, spread around neatly (it won’t spread in the oven, so get it the way you want it,) and bake at 300 until a clean knife comes out almost clean. Then-this is important-let it sit for at least 8 hours before you cut it, so it can firm up. Serve at room temp or slightly warmed, Never cold, with or without whipped cream, and enjoy. My motto is “Chocolate is food, not dessert,” and I have eaten a wedge of this cake for lunch on occasion.

I have frozen a number of one-torte portions of blended quince flesh and cream, ready to make this cake all winter.

 

Another Quickie


Yesterday I wrote about a quick light snack/meal made mostly from stored staples and fresh greens, and today it happened again that we weren’t terribly hungry at lunchtime but wanted something healthy and good. It was the work of ten minutes to chop up some lambs-quarters tops and a clove of garlic and sauté them with some salt while I peeled a few hard-boiled eggs out of the refrigerator. If you don’t have any already hard boiled, you can cook the number you want and chill them in ice water and eat them still velvety-warm in the center, which is delicious.

The finishing touch for the dish is a good glop of Mayonaisse. I make my own with the glorious deep orange yolks of greens-fed chickens and a mixture of olive oil and avocado oil. With a little salt and lemon juice and seasoning of your choice, its creamy unctuousness is quite superb and elevates a commonplace snack into something special. This particular batch was seasoned with some puréed canned chipotles in adobo, and finished with a sprinkle of ground chipotles.

Green leaves are the most active and extraordinary solar collectors in the world, and ideally they nourish you directly and nourish any animals that you eat. If you don’t want to garden or don’t have space, there is probably some foragable lambsquarters not too far away. You will invariably eat more greens if you make it convenient for yourself to eat them. Washing and cleaning them before they go in the refrigerator helps a lot, and sautéing them lightly before they hit the fridge can be even better. Better to compost some that you don’t use in time than to not eat them because they aren’t ready and waiting for you.

A Quick Snack for Dinner

When dinner needs to be quick and light, the staples that you have available become crucial. On a recent evening I decided to build a light meal around the goat halloumi that I always have in the freezer. It comes from my beloved Sanaan doe Magnolia, and since she is entirely greens-fed, this dish could be called “greens, direct and indirect.” If you aren’t lucky enough to have a pet goat, the superb halloumi from Mount Vikos is widely available and is great to have in the freezer.

Two flavorings that I always have on hand are preserved lemons (very easy to make yourself) and pitted kalamata olives. For 10oz of halloumi, I chopped a small handful each of olives and lemon rind, leaving them fairly coarse. Out of the garden, I grabbed a few stems of thyme, a small bunch of lambsquarters, and a few tender mulberry shoots.

The halloumi was fried in a little avocado oil, my current favorite for searing and other high-heat cooking. Meanwhile, I chopped the other ingredients. My lemons are preserved in salt and fresh lemon juice, and I left the juice clinging to them, to season the dish. While the halloumi seared, I fried the other ingredients at lower heat in a little olive oil in another saucepan. When the halloumi was ready, I tossed it with the seasonings and served.

The whole process took just over ten minutes. If you’re hungrier than we were, you can put a slice of sourdough bread drizzled with good olive oil alongside.

The point here is that you can feed yourself well and in a very healthy fashion even if all you have time for is quick, improvisational cooking. Keep a few staple flavorings that you like in the refrigerator, and buy a few fresh herbs when you shop so that you can lift quick dishes out of the ordinary. Parsley and thyme are always good. No halloumi on hand? Fry a couple of eggs per person in the olive oil instead, and toss the sautéed seasonings over them. No garden where you can grab some tender shoots on the way to the kitchen? Keep a bunch of Swiss chard on hand, and rather than trying to cook it all at once, put a couple of sliced leaves into multiple different dishes. Like to forage a little but didn’t find much? This is a perfect dish to use up a handful of dandelion or whatever other greens you found. Don’t care for greens at all? Use herbs and sliced mushrooms instead.   Cooking is endlessly adaptable and can work for you, with whatever time and energy you feel able to devote to it.

 

 

The Perennial Paddock: Mycelial Madness

Nothing made me more joyously certain that I had created a real, albeit tiny, ecosystem in my suburban yard than when the first mushrooms grew among perennial plants rather than in a grow-bag or other artificial arrangement. Last year two kinds of mushrooms spread from spawn I had introduced and appeared far from the original “planting.” I was ecstatic; the mycelial Internet was forming! And this spring I was even more gratified to find a big cluster of Stropharia rugosa-annulata pushing up through the mulch months before I had expected to see any mushrooms. By perfectionist standards they were  overly mature when I discovered them, as evidenced by size, lightened cap color, and the cracks in the cap. But I am no perfectionist and knew that they were still perfectly good to eat.

So a few notes on introducing mushrooms, in no particular order:

1. Stropharia rugosa-annulata is the easiest mushroom  to grow in your garden. Even here in the high desert, it thrives in a deep mulch of straw and oak sawdust. In my opinion the almond agaricus is the most delicious, but it is more finicky and less productive. I have grown oyster mushrooms in containers, but this year I’m experimenting with introducing them into more unlikely spots. I’ll report back.

2. Get good spawn. Mine came from Field and Forest Products, and it was ready to grow.

3. Know how to indentify the mushroom that you introduced. Know its field marks and identify it before you eat it. When you create a good outdoor environment for mushrooms, you are not in complete control of what grows, any more than you are immune to weeds in your garden beds.

4. Be aware of how many commercial mulch products are treated with fungicides to prevent fungus from moving in. If you want select funguses to move in and thrive, you need to avoid these products.

5. Cook and eat with a sense of reverence and awe for the complex and extraordinary interactions of nature. If you want to learn more about this, Mycelium Running, Mycelial Mayhem, and Radical Mycology are useful books.

I sautéed my mushrooms in olive oil with generous additions of green garlic and fresh thyme, then removed them from the skillet, set aside in a warm spot, and scrambled some eggs in additional olive oil with a little salt. When the eggs were cooked, the mushrooms were folded back in. Simple as that. Scrambling is an underestimated technique. In this case I cooked the eggs fairly firm, for texture contrast with the softer mushrooms.  I framed the fragrant heap with a couple of slices of bacon. It made a quick delicious dinner, mostly from my own property, and was a culinary salute to the mycelial web that underlies, well, damn near everything.

Dandelion Time

Just after the first nettles, the first dandelions are ready to eat. This happens about the same time that the earliest daffodils bloom.

I have mentioned in another post that dandelions don’t seem to occur naturally in my neighborhood, and I went to a ridiculous amount of trouble to have them and paid good money for seeds that people in other climates would pay to get rid of.  Surprisingly, they take a long time to establish. I find that they are extremely straggly and thin the first year, and only a little more substantial in the second year. But in the third year, they make beautiful thick rosettes of spring time leaves that are perfect for salads.  Interestingly, the dandelions growing in my garden beds are not bitter, although in general dandelion leaves are famous for bitterness.  This may have something to do with my alkaline and highly mineralized soil. I’m really not sure. But it is a nice bonus. If yours are bitter, check out Dr. Kallas’s excellent book Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate, which contains a number of sensible suggestions about making bitter greens more appealing.

All sorts of medicinal properties are attributed to dandelions,  and if you’re interested in that you can read up on it. Personally, as I have said several times before, I think that all leafy greens are medicinal in that they are really, truly good for you. Eat them all, lots of them.

The early spring leaves are both tender and substantial in texture. I like them in a salad either by themselves or with a little bit of outer leaves of romaine lettuce added.  But if you want to add them to a more traditional mixed salad, they add a nice amount of “lift“ to the mixture at this stage.  At times when I lived where dandelions or more bitter,  I was very fond of adding crumbled bacon and hard cooked or Friday eggs to dandelion salads. With the nonbitter leaves that grow here, I prefer to eat them just with a good vinaigrette, and maybe a few bones’ worth of roasted marrow alongside to complete the meal. I roast the bones with salt and seasoning, then dig the marrow out and plop it on a pile of dandelion leaves dressed with good vinaigrette. Grind some pepper over the top, and yum.  It’s a delicious way to stay ketogenic, but if you are not a low-carbohydrate eater, you can enjoy the marrow spread on elegant little pieces of sourdough toast.

Incidentally, if you are a fan of bone marrow, you might want to keep marrow spoons around, as shown above. They have long, narrow bowls that are specially designed for digging this delicious substance out of the bone. You can get heirloom sterling silver ones from England for $700 or more apiece, or you can do what I did and buy stainless steel marrow spoons on Amazon for less than $10 each. They work just fine.

Grass-fed beef

I love beef, and I want beef that is produced with respect for the animals and the environment and is healthy for me to eat. I choose only to eat grass fed beef.  In the spring and summer I am able to get a wonderful grade of grass-fed beef at my local farmers market, but this winter I begin to think about the problems of people who don’t have this available but still want to eat as healthily as possible. If you’re a ketogenic eater  you tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the quality of the protein in your diet, but really it would be wise for everybody to think about that.  After doing some research on various possibilities, I began buying through Crowd Cow.

Crowd Cow  is a service that brings beef from small, well run farms directly to consumers. They represent both grass finished and grain finished beef, and the farms are listed as one or the other so that you can select only the kind that you want. They allow you to buy individual cuts or small packages, so that you don’t have to buy a new freezer to eat good beef, and the shipping  is an incredibly reasonable $12.99 per package, no matter how much you buy.  I placed three orders this winter, and always had everything arrive solidly frozen, with no partial thaw problems.

The meat has been high-quality and delicious. The steaks are superb, but I try to concentrate on less lavish and expensive cuts, and those have been great too.  They also offer pastured chicken, but the problem is that when a chicken sale starts in the morning, the cuts that I want are usually sold out by lunchtime when I have time to look at the website, so I have only gotten one order of chicken. It was very delicious, though, and produced in much the same way that I raise my own meat chickens when I do that.

The link below will take you to Crowd Cow and, if you order, earn a $25 credit both for you and for me.  But it will be the first bonus I ever received from them.  I don’t accept any “free samples“ of services from anybody, and I do not write about something until I have paid exactly the price that you were likely to pay and determined in my own mind whether a good cost/benefit ratio exists. In this case, I really think it does, and gives people a chance to buy high-quality beef and to support the sort of farms that produce such beef.

https://www.crowdcow.com/l/ugp3uonsg