Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Fermentation III: Vinegar

 
I first wrote about red wine vinegar in 2009, and while I have made and consumed it steadily since then, there didn’t seem to be much more to say about it. My husband gifted me with a marvelously cool 2 gallon oak barrel to keep it in, but the vinegar was the same. But then came The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and I’m left wondering why I was so unimaginative. Their chapter on vinegars has lots of interesting ideas but the ones that excite me the most are elderberry “balsamic” and black garlic “balsamic.” I suspect that I will end up combining the two, since I have some elderberry wine fermenting and the port-like notes should be a perfect complement to the deep umami of black garlic, and for even more depth I’ll use red wine vinegar to start the acetic fermentation. Basically, if you have a good strong vinegar mother, you can ferment anything mildly alcoholic into vinegar. The acetobacter bacillus converts ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of oxygen, so if you want to use your own fruit you need to ferment it into wine first, but that’s easy enough. Once you have wine or mead or hard cider to ferment into vinegar, you can do it in quart mason jars, with a dish towel tied tightly over the top to allow oxygen in and prevent winged visitors, and make several kinds of vinegar in a square foot of counter space. Or if you have a lot of ideas and a tolerant spouse, you can occupy all available surfaces. Just make sure you have a plan for what to do with it.  You can cook with it as detailed in my 2009 post, and if you still have too much it makes a fair non-alcoholic drink stirred into sparkling water. Stir a shot into a tall glass of chilled sparkling water, with some natural or artificial sweetener. I like a shake of cinnamon on top. This isn’t a kid’s drink, and only the adults are likely to enjoy it, and not all of them by any means. Some will dislike the sharp edge, and a dash of fruit juice or a little honey may take the curse off for them. But those of us who drank the old cider-vinegar-and-honey drink growing up generally came to enjoy the sweet-sour flavor and like this use of vinegar.

This is already known to everyone, but it bears occasional repeating: you can also infuse vinegar with nearly anything that suits your fancy. Tarragon is a classic, but I prefer thyme infused in red wine vinegar, using about one big bunch of thyme per pint of vinegar. Flavorful fruits are also a possibility. Be aware that Acetobacter does one thing superbly well, and that is converting ethanol to acetic acid. If you add any source of unfermented sugar directly to your ferment, it will remain as sugar. You can use this effect deliberately to make fascinating semi-sweet or agrodolce vinegars. One that I particularly enjoyed was made by dehydrating Concord grapes from my vine until they were somewhat shriveled and approaching the raisin stage, covering them with red wine vinegar, blending with a stick blender until the grapes were roughly chopped, and then infusing the mixture for a couple of weeks. The grape bits were then strained out, and the vinegar was richly flavored, barely sweet, and carried some of the unique tang of the Concord grape. I’m looking forward to making pomegranate vinegar in the near future. Blackberry vinegar would probably be wonderful.

It may be that live vinegar contributes to your biome and general health, and definitely it contains the antioxidants of the original wine with little or none of the alcohol.

If you get interested in culinary uses for your vinegar, you will enjoy Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. The section on acid in cooking is invaluable and will lead you to analyze food that lies a bit too heavy on the tongue and realize that a bit of acid could have sparked it to deliciousness. Canal House makes and uses a lot of vinegar in their cooking, and you can find some recipes and a good article on making vinegar here.

The vinegar “mother” is a great example of a SCOBY or pellicle, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that create a matrix and keep reproducing as long as they have a food supply. They busily make vinegar, kombucha,water or milk kefir, or other things depending on the particular microorganisms. You can see the vinegar mother well in this borrowed shot:

Your mother is very versatile and can make vinegar of anything alcoholic as long as the proof isn’t too high. Be aware that a mother formed in red wine will carry red pigment for quite a while, and if you put it in white wine or hard cider you will have rose’ vinegar. The mothers look a bit like placentas:

If you have a healthy one, the question always arises of what to do with the “pups” or new layers of mother that are continually forming. Some people eat them, but then some people eat their own placentas. No judgement implied, but I wouldn’t eat either one. If your friends don’t want one, put it in the compost or bury it in the garden or whatever makes you feel okay about letting go of it.

 

Fermentation II: Black Garlic and other goodies

 

 

Yesterday’s post was about a truly remarkable cookbook, The Noma Guide to Fermentation. Today I’ll talk about a kind of high-temperature enzymatic reaction, the making of black garlic and other blackened goodies. Properly speaking this is a Maillard reaction and not a fermentation, but let’s not quibble when the result is so delicious.

These products need to be made at a temperature of 140-150 degrees. This is hard to achieve without a specially built chamber, although I notice with interest that a household appliance built especially to make black garlic is available on Amazon. A rice cooker on “keep warm” is suggested, but mine turns off automatically. I am trying my large crockpot on the ‘keep warm” setting and the lid cracked to keep the temperature lower. But the process takes weeks, so I also bought some finished black garlic ready to use. If you go in for this cheat, you have the option to get the Asian kind that is one single huge clove of garlic about an inch across as shown above, but if you buy from Black Garlic North America you can buy it peeled fairly economically or (my choice) you can buy 1.5 pounds unpeeled and have the skins available to put in simmering chicken stock, giving it wonderful depth.  It is also sold in tiny little packets in many grocery stores, but I do not recommend that form. It is often dried out and unpleasant by the time you get it when it should be moist, chewy, and have the complexity of good balsamic vinegar with a different flavor.

As for using it, one of my favorite simple uses is to pound two huge single cloves or 5 to 6 regular cloves of black garlic to a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle with a little salt, then pound in 2 tablespoons of cold butter and a teaspoon of very good balsamic vinegar (nothing from the grocery store.) Pound until you have a smooth mousse-like paste, then use it to top steaks, spread it on bread, or toss with a little pasta. To make the heavenly sauce above is only slightly more complex. Make the black garlic butter paste as described. After pan-grilling a nice bit of steak, while the steak is resting deglaze the pan with water or red wine, boil down the fluid hard, add a cube of beef glacé from the freezer, and when the glacé is melted, add the black garlic paste and stir in thoroughly. Add a little water to thin the sauce to desired consistency, taste for salt, slice the steak, and pour the sauce over the slices.  This amount of black garlic paste makes enough for two people.   The recipe is very adaptable and doubles easily.  It’s rich and meaty, full of umami, and enhances everything it touches.  Tart it up with some extra butter if you want it even richer.  It also does wonderful things for ordinary supermarket cremini  mushrooms, and even better things for more flavorful mushrooms like shitakes.  Needless to say, make beef glacé if you don’t have it, and don’t even think about using a boullion cube. Or pound out the garlic cloves without adding the other ingredients and put them in vinaigrette.

Above, several regular-sized  cloves of black garlic were pounded and roughly mixed into half a cup of red wine vinaigrette and spooned over cold sliced steak, sliced avocado, and salad.  This might sound like too much but the flavor of black garlic is mellow and surprisingly low-key and you need a lot when it’s the main flavoring.

I was rather startled to find that all kinds of miraculous health benefits are attributed to black garlic, to the extent that it is sold in capsules for people who want to take it more conveniently. That anything as meaty and delicious as black garlic should be ground up and put in capsules is weird to me, sort of like taking steak in capsules, but suit yourself.

Incidentally if you grow a lot of garlic and have trouble storing it through the winter, it might be worth rigging up a chamber so that you can make black garlic in quantity. I would imagine that it could be sold quite profitably at farmers markets, since I almost never see it in those venues. However, I am nowhere near handy enough to tell you how to make a 140 degree chamber without burning down your house. Know your limitations.

‘The ”other goodies” refers  to the fact that the same process can be used to blacken some other foods, with varying results. Please use the Noma people as your guide if you want to try this, since I am experimenting with it but my products are not ready yet. Their descriptions of apples blackened in the fermentation chamber, then dehydrated until chewy, then coated in very dark chocolate, sound luscious. I am blackening some quinces, and I’ll report back if the result is worthwhile.

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.

 

The Turn of the Wheel

 

This summer, more than usual, I ran a bit adrift when it came to blog-writing. There were many reasons, but the main reason was that it was so damned hot that I couldn’t bear to work in the garden and nothing would grow. July and August are always warm in New Mexico, but this year those months were beastly. A lot of my plants died because it was so hot that I couldn’t supply enough water to keep them alive. Or maybe I could have, but with the freezer already full to bursting it didn’t seem practical. I concentrated my efforts on watering the things that I like for fresh use.

But last week piles of pumpkins and squash started to show up outside the local grocery stores, and everything started to change. The wheel of the year has turned. Days are breezy and nights verge on chilly. The glorious scent of chiles  roasting can be picked up near every grocer and market stand. The plants that survived the heat got a new lease on life. Cottonwoods started to turn gold.

 

Some of my mushroom bags, desiccated over the summer, imbibed water and started to fruit. They took me by surprise and I didn’t notice the new mushrooms until they were cracking at the outer edges. But they’re just fine for kitchen use. Sautéed or grilled or roasted, oyster mushrooms are pretty much the perfect all-around mushroom, mild and meaty and appealing to nearly everyone.

The tough stem bases that were trimmed off for cooking can be thoroughly dehydrated and ground into oyster flour. It’s perfect for thickening mushroom soup or sauces.

This year I made a mixed mushroom flavoring paste and froze it in ice cube trays to use for sauces and soups. I can’t give you an exact recipe  but can convey the general idea, and no doubt you can improve on it. I  used an assortment of five wild mushroom species from a foraging trip as well as the oysters, but you can use cultivated mushrooms. The last time I was in Whole Foods I saw seven varieties of cultivated mushrooms, and dried mushrooms are also available commercially, so anybody can get  enough to try. My favorite source for bulk dried mushrooms is Oregon Mushrooms.

This formula can be endlessly adapted to any kind and any amount of edible mushrooms, although I don’t recommend lobster mushrooms because they don’t have much flavor to contribute.

Start with about three pounds of clean fresh mushrooms, at least a few different kinds, or about a pound of assorted dried mushrooms. I used oysters, hawkswing, agaricus, hen of the woods, lion’s mane, and cultivated shiitakes.  If dried, soak them for an hour in enough hot water to cover them. Drain, strain any dirt out of the liquid with a fine strainer, and save the water. Pick over the mushrooms for any debris, then chop. This can be done in a food processor if you’re careful not to chop them to mush. Chop one large or two small onions and five cloves of garlic. Sauté the onions and garlic slowly in butter or good olive oil. When translucent and cooked but not browned, add the chopped mushrooms and sauté over medium heat until the mushrooms are somewhat cooked and exuding liquid.

Now add the mushroom soaking liquid if you used dried mushrooms, half a bottle of good red wine, a quarter cup of soy sauce or coconut aminos, six anchovy fillets,  three or four good-sized sprigs of thyme,  and any dried mushroom powder that you wish to add. I used some oyster powder and porcini powder,  and also added about a cup of broken pieces of dried morels from a bag that I had finished up.

Cook the mixture over medium heat.  Let it boil, because you want to concentrate down the fluid. When the fluid only just covers the mushrooms,  remove the thyme stems and purée  the mixture in the blender or food processor or right in the sauce pan with a stick blender.

Now you have a thick gloppy mixture looking something like this:

Cook over low heat until it gets really thick, stirring frequently to prevent burning.  Add a quarter cup of best quality red wine vinegar and keep cooking.  When the paste is dark and thick, taste it and add salt if needed. It should taste pretty intense. After all, it is a seasoning, not a food. When it is done to your satisfaction, smooth the paste into ice cube trays, cover, and freeze.

It will then lurk in your freezer, ready to add a deep taste of the forest to nearly anything where a mushroom flavor would be appropriate. After pan-grilling beef or game, toss a cube into the pan with some wine or broth and deglaze, boiling furiously, add a pat of butter, and boil a little more until it comes together as a pan gravy. Melt a cube into mushroom soup to enhance its flavor. Add a cube and some heavy cream  to sautéed mushrooms that seem a little bland.  Melt a cube, mix into an equal amount of soft butter, and use it as a finishing butter for meat or almost any kind of vegetable, or toss with hot pasta and some good Parmesan. Spread on hot buttered toast or stir into scrambled eggs.

Every time you use it, you’ll be reminded of the fascinating fifth kingdom that helps keep our planet alive.

 

Broccoli Heaven

This year I made a real effort to have broccoli, my favorite vegetable, available in larger quantities than I could eat at once.  Every year I hope to have some to freeze, and every year I gobble it all up as soon as it is ready.  But this year I did succeed, by putting in 12 plants in late May that would mature after my earliest planting, and mature more or less all at the same time  so that I couldn’t just hog it all at once in one giant broccoli orgy.

Broccoli is a very heavy feeder, and when it is a bit established I pile a heavy mulch of alfalfa and a little chicken manure all around the base, a few inches back from the stem. This conserves moisture and provides nutrients in a steady fashion throughout the growing season, allowing my broccoli heads to get as big as 12” across.

The result is that my refrigerator is crammed with broccoli right now, with more sitting around or out in the garden waiting to be brought in. This is my idea of a really wonderful problem to have.

As far as what to do with broccoli, there is no question that roasting is my favorite technique.  Here is an excellent basic recipe, which is very similar to the way I do it, and there are endless variations that you can dream up on your own. This is, in my opinion, too good to be a side dish and deserves to be the very center of the table, but certainly it goes well alongside a steak, roasted chicken, or just about anything else you could name.  If you aren’t sure what else to do with broccoli, the wonderful food 52 site has great recipes and is worth a browse.

https://food52.com/recipes/21828-parmesan-crusted-broccoli

As far as health questions go, I think that green vegetables are vitally important to a long and healthy life. There is now a small dietary movement favoring pure carnivory, and the wacko fringe elements of that group believe that eating green vegetables will probably kill you.  It is my view that this completely ignores the demographic data that all the healthiest and longest lived populations in the world eat plenty of green vegetables.  So make your own decisions, but don’t ignore the data. Here’s one study:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29739681

And one specifically on ovarian cancer:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29693426

I won’t make extravagant claims for cruciferous vegetables, but it is at least clear from the data that they certainly won’t kill you.

 

The Hen That Laid the Golden Egg


In an earlier post, A Little Hen Science, I linked to a study showing the health difference to the eater between a well-produced egg and a poorly produced one.   Today I am going to throw out some brief notes about what is possible when you feed your own chickens. First, my chickens are not pastured. My area has a lively band of coyotes, and the hens have to be in a fenced run with a roof over it to be safe. So I gather the pasture and bring it to the hens. Every day they get a huge pile of leafy weeds, green garden veggies that I’m not going to use in time, windfall fruit, and veggie scraps from the table. When the goat is in milk, they get whey and any discard milk, all greens-fed of course.  They get grain and flaxseed free-choice.  I have looked into the possibility of growing black soldier fly larvae to provide them with extra protein, but that notion dropped dead when I saw a video of the inside of a “bug pod“ designed to produce them. I have a strong stomach generally, but it does not extend to masses of writhing larvae.  So I throw the ladies any squash bugs, cabbage loopers, snails, etc. that show up, and cook any eggs that get too old for human or canine use into “chicken cake“ to give them some extra protein.  You can also buy freeze dried meal worms for the same purpose, although they are pretty expensive.  I keep a bag of organic turmeric around, and throw a tablespoon or two in every time I cook up a chicken cake, and also throw in a handful of Thorvin kelp meal to make sure that they are getting all their minerals.

The result can be seen above. On the left of the photo is the yolk of the best pastured eggs that I am able to buy in my local co-op. On the right is a yolk from one of my hens.  That’s a pretty good illustration of how many carotenoids  you can fit into one egg yolk. This is even more impressive given that the chicken who produced this egg is the only leghorn in my flock, and the leghorn is a breed often scorned by people with a home flock because the egg shells are white.  As you can see, they are industrious foragers and will practically eat their own weight in greens,  and they are also prolific layers.  There’s nothing not to like about them, and when some of my old ladies succumb to old age, I will get a few more leghorns. But any hen will lay better eggs if her nutrition is top-notch, and if her nutrition is top-notch, yours will be too.