Sunday, August 31, 2008

Yogurt: Perfect Foil for Summer Fruit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I’ve never met a dairy product I didn’t like, so pretty much as soon as yogurt appeared on the grocery shelves, I’ve been eating it. And I’ve been making it, on and off, for almost 25 of those eating years, ever since my friend and neighbor in Pacific Grove, California, taught me how. Carol was married to an Armenian at the time, and though it is a really, really good thing that she is no longer with this particular man, she did acquire through the marriage a number of useful recipes from his mother. I was one of the happy beneficiaries.

A few years after that I made my first trip to Europe, where, we all know, the soft, fresh-tasting yogurt is divine. Then of course there is Greek yogurt, the equivalent, in texture, of eating sour cream. For a long time these were both difficult to find in this country, and on return from traveling one would reluctantly settle back into the U.S. offerings, experimenting to find the one brand among the sea of containers that was not loaded with sugar or artificial sweetener, gloppy old fruit jelly on the bottom, or some sort of stabilizer such as gelatin that gave the yogurt a texture that you could actually cut. Horrible stuff. And even the reasonably palatable ones still lacked the soft texture of the real thing.

Recently I went into a store where all the yogurt was junk, almost all of it artificially sweetened. I am wont to experience food outrage in supermarkets, and I was prepared to confront the manager when, down in a lowly corner of the otherwise infuriating shelves, I spotted about six containers among the hundreds —six, I kid you not—of Emmi yogurt. Emmi is a Swiss product, and they (unlike Dannon) seem to have decided that they will only sell the identical product, not an Americanized version, in this country. I snapped up all six and proceeded to check-out, where I was in for another shock: they were $1.50 a piece, twice the cost of the other yogurts.

So I decided to make yogurt this weekend, and I think I am just going to get back in the habit so I can have the kind of soft, creamy, superfresh-tasting yogurt I prefer. I love yogurt year-round, but in the summer it is such a pleasure to eat it with peaches sautéed in butter and brown sugar, or with a spoonful of freshly made jam or, my favorite, a not-too-sweet fresh raspberry, cherry, or blackberry sauce. These I stir in to make a completely smooth and uniform but intensely flavored breakfast treat; for visual appeal, I partially stir in a bit more at the end to give it a marbleized look.

I don’t have a yogurt maker, although I hear they are very good and I may break down and buy one, particularly because yogurt-making can be slightly fickle when you are trying to control the level of warmth yourself. Below is the general method, and a few tips.

Soft European-style Yogurt with Fruit

The addition of some nonfat dry milk powder supports a uniform texture, but it is not necessary if you don’t have it on hand. Makes about a quart.

1 quart 2% milk ( you can use whole or 1%, but skim doesn’t seen to work so well)
1/3 cup nonfat dried milk (optional, but useful)
4 T fresh, cold plain yogurt with live culture (check label)
Fruit puree, fruit syrup, homemade jam or preserves, sautéed fruit


Set up a bain-marie by placing a heatproof bowl into a larger heatproof pan; here I used a soufflé dish inside a lasagna pan. Boil some water and keep it warm on the back of the stove.

Using a thermometer, in a saucepan bring the milk to just under a boil (below 212°F; this will help make a firmer texture as well as thwart bacteria). Remove it from the heat and pour it into the bowl. Transfer your thermometer to the bowl, and let the milk cool to 110°F; you can place the bowl in some cold water to help it cool more rapidly, which is desirable. Skim the skin off and discard.

Add the yogurt with live culture to the cooled milk. Using a flat paddle-like spoon or spatula, gently combine; do not beat. Pour warm water around the bowl in the bain-marie and insert your thermometer; if the water is 120°F or more, add cold tap water to bring it down: 110° is ideal, but anywhere between 95-115° will be fine. Keep the milk mixture cozy and at the optimal temperature until the yogurt sets, adding hot water if needed, anywhere from 3-6 hrs. Watch it, but do not disturb it!

When the yogurt is ready, immediately refrigerate it; see “Maintaining Temperature” below for notes about testing. You can put it into separate sterilized small jars or transfer it to another clean bowl. It will keep for about two weeks. Top with or mix in fruit, fruit preserves, or fruit sauce to serve.

Maintaining TemperatureOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here are some alternatives for maintaining temperature during incubation, in my order of preference. Generally, I want to be able to see it so that I don’t forget about it, because you really do not want it to go too long or it may throw whey (liquid milk protein) and get curdy looking (although not curdled tasting). Start checking after a couple of hours; you can see when it is set, and you can test it by just slightly tilting the bowl to verify.

1. A large heating pad and towel. Place the heating pad running vertically on the counter and turn it on high. Set the pan perpendicularly on the lower half, then bring the other half over the top of the bowl. Cover all with a towel so you take in the sides, letting the thermometer poke out.

2. On top of an old-fashioned gas stove with a pilot light. When I first started making yogurt, I set it in the center of the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         top of my old professional O’Keefe and Merritt gas range, where the pilot light, hidden away but always at the ready to ignite a burner, lived its secret, useful life. Alas, I no longer have this wonder of a stove, and newer gas ranges are pilot-less. This would be my first-choice  method if I still had a gas stove with pilot.

3. In a sunny window or outside on a deck or balcony. This is the “solar” method, a modern version of the nomadic back-of-the-camel method. The main reason I like this is that it is out in plain sight. But it takes attention, there’s a risk you may need to move it, and you of course have to keep it tightly covered or fully contained if it is outside.

4. In a thermos. If you have one that is big enough and good enough to maintain temperature for a good 3-6 hours, you could theoretically skip the bain-marie. It’s not easy to check readiness or temperature, though.

5. In an oven set to around 150-200°F to create an ambient warmth of around 100. You don’t need the bain-marie. But I don’t like it because I tend to forget about it, even using a timer; you can’t hear it if you’re not right around the kitchen. Also, it gets disturbed when you move it from the counter to the oven, or pull out the shelves to check it. And it’s hard to control the oven temperature.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

So Many Tomatoes, So Little Time

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         It’s tomato time again. Not only does August bring an abundance of tomatoes in number, it brings an abundance in kind. Big beefsteak types, medium all-purpose varieties, cherry, grape, and pear-shaped little ones, yellow and orange and pink tomatoes, and adorably deformed heirlooms. We’re all pleased as punch, aren’t we?
But, admit it, a little frustrated, too. Tomatoes don’t keep—the real ones, anyway—and there are only so many you can eat. Even when you are eating them, happily, every day for two meals and maybe a snack. I don’t even grow my own, so I can only imagine what you home vegetable gardeners are facing. But I still have too many, because I feel compelled to buy them while they are here. I go tomato-less all winter and spring except in the forms in which I can preserve them.
So preserve I must. But when? I’m stretched thin as fine strudel dough right now. No spiced tomato soup making for me this year (fortunately, I have two quarts left). Gazpacho, yes—blessedly simple and a favorite. My prize tomato chutney, not likely (although this is one thing I might pull an all-nighter for). Sun-dried tomatoes, candied tomatoes? Not a chance this year. Jam: yes.
Tomatoes yellowTomato jam is such an old fashioned thing that, at least in this country, you almost never see it sold. But it shares, with sour cherry preserves, a place of honor on my English muffin. It is a perfect item for my general approach to preserving—which includes making a small batch. You with a garden may make more. Me, I just made a few jars.

I used a mixture of Bradley tomatoes, a delicious pink tomato new to me this year, and a beefsteak-type tomato the name of which I can’t remember. Use any you have on hand. Makes about 2 half-pint jars.
2 lb, generous, tomatoes (see Note)
½ small lemon, seeded and sliced paper-thin
¾ cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar
large pinch of salt
½ tea pure vanilla extract
1 tea butter
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Put the tomatoes, the sugars, and the lemon into a 3-qt, preferably slope-sided pan. Cover and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to medium and cook at a bubble, still covered, for about 10 minutes to soften the tomatoes. Remove the lid, and cook for about 45 minutes, or until it is thick and the skins have pretty much fallen off (see Note below), chopping at the tomatoes with a wooden spoon from time to time; adjust your heat if needed to keep it bubbling but not boiling hard. Add the vanilla and pinch of salt, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook about 10-15 minutes more. Stir in the butter. Ladle into clean jars and seal; store in the refrigerator or freeze.
NOTE: You can skin the tomatoes or not. To skin, bring a pot of water to a boil, lower the tomatoes in for about a minute, then drain; the skins should have split and will remove easily with a sharp knife. If you leave the skins on, they will come off during OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         cooking and curl up into little sheaves. You can pick them out with a fork after 45 minutes of cooking, or you can just leave them in. You could also strain your jam; I’d do this with a larger batch.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cocktail Potatoes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I had every intention of doing something with blackberries this week before they disappear from the local scene. I really did. But you know how I feel about freshly dug potatoes. And despite the fact that I’ve already done a potato entry this season, yesterday I saw these tiny potatoes at a roadside stand. They had, according to the farmer, been grown by one of his neighbors and dug that morning. We cooking fiends all know the truth about the best-laid plans of mice and chefs. I bought them.
The variety of these potatoes are Red Pontiac, sometimes called Dakota Chief (Kennebecs were also on offer, equally small and new). They are an all-purpose early-season potato with the thin skins that I like, for either rubbing off with a towel or leaving on. Since they are pink—the skins can fade and so are not as rosy as a lot of red-skinned potatoes—I generally leave them on, but some does always come off when they are washed. And yes, despite my general aversion to washing versus wiping, I do wash most potatoes because they are, well, just too dirty even for me.
Much as I feel about corn, new potatoes deserve their own spot on the menu, as a showcase rather than a side. A great additional benefit is the ability to have them really hot, too, given the tendency of both potatoes and corn to end up rather cooler than one would like by the time all plates hit the table. When I locate these tiny taters my preference is to microwave them whole and serve them simply—olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs, sometimes a little sprinkled freshly grated parmesan—for an appetizer (whence my name for them, “cocktail potatoes.” Here is the simple way I do it:
Cocktail Potatoes

The skins of these potatoes burst as you bite into them, releasing the soft, sweet potato. They are delicious.
Any number of tiny new potatoesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1 tea regular olive oil + ½ tea or more extra-virgin olive oil  
¼ cup water, to start
¼ tea kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Chopped chives, parsley, basil, or other herb for garnish; freshly grated parmesan if you like
Use a shallow au gratin pan, glass pie plate, or other rimmed dish large enough to hold the potatoes loosely. Put about ¼ cup of water and a teaspoon of ordinary olive oil into the pan with about ¼ tea salt; add the potatoes and toss briefly. Microwave on high for 5 minutes; check, and if the water has largely boiled away, add another scant ¼ cup. Cook until the potatoes can be pierced with a small skewer or the point of a sharp paring knife; this will take about 10-12 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of your potatoes and your microwave, for potatoes in the size range of 1-1 ½". When they are done, drain off any remaining water and toss with a small amount, perhaps ½ teaspoon or a little more, extra-virgin olive, and freshly ground pepper, additional salt if needed (they absorb the salt while cooking, so be cautious), and herbs and/or cheese of your choice. Do not over-dress them. Serve on toothpicks with drinks.
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eat A Peach: Ladies’ Luncheon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The local peaches are perfect right now. Whether you prefer a white peach—usually very sweet, but less acidic and to some people’s tastes not intensely peachy enough—or a yellow, with its richer combination of sweet and tang, both are juicy and good to eat. Select peaches that are fragrant (they should smell like peaches), free of bruises, velvety-fuzzy (a smooth-skinned peach is a nectarine, and a flat-napped one is either over-bred or over-the-hill), and that yield slightly to gentle pressure; keep these delicate fruits separate from your other shopping or they will be the worse for wear by the time you get them home. Use ripe peaches promptly, or leave them at room temperature in a shady spot or in a paper bag if they are not quite ripe when you buy them. In any case, avoid refrigeration.
In addition to eating peaches out of hand, slicing them over your morning cereal, or serving them with cream and a tad of brown sugar, peaches lend themselves to all kinds of drinks (the famous Bellini, for Ladies Lunch Anne and meexample), desserts (the equally famous Peach Melba or iconic peach ice cream), summer preserving, and baking. They are closely associated with Southern cooking, so what better use to put a juicy fresh peach than as part of a Southern-style ladies’ luncheon? This was the happy thought of my long-time friend and neighbor, Anne Simon, an outstanding cook and even better baker. (That is Anne and me in the photo at right.) Anne is an inveterate entertainer, to my frequent benefit and perennial gratitude. What a treat for me to attend an event like this where not only do I have to do absolutely nothing, but the food is just right. In this case, I even got to put my two cents into the menu. Here is what we had:

Frozen Mint Juleps
Iced Tea, Wine
Cheese Straws
Chicken Salad in Butter Lettuce Cups
Pickled Shrimp with New Onions
Sliced Tomatoes and Avocados with Corn and Basil Oil
(Anne’s Spectacular) Soft Dinner Rolls, Strawberry Butter
Fresh Peach and Blueberry Cornbread
White Layer Cake with Raspberry Buttercream
CoffeeLadies Lunch cake
Everything was wonderful, but a few items were extra-fine. Anne’s rolls are, in my opinion, the best of their genre, made all the more delicious by being  accompanied by an intense, deep pink butter made from her homemade strawberry jam—you will recall that this year’s strawberries were extra-good, and by extension, so was her jam. The cake—well, the photo speaks for itself: beautiful, high, tender, with an elegant pale pink buttercream made with a puree of fresh local raspberries. And the cornbread was sublime. Anne loves the combination of corn and blueberry, a preference that I share, and the addition of the juicy local peaches, which she felt she simply must use, makes this bread satisfyingly moist and special. Here is her recipe, edited slightly:
Anne’s Peach and Blueberry Cornbread
In doing this blog, one of the things I had to get used to was measuring everything so that I could provide you with a workable recipe. In sending me this, Anne notes: “the exact measurement of the fruit is hard to say for sure.  Sometime I throw in extra cornmeal if I think that things look too wet.”  So experiment a SONY DSC                     little with the wet/dry balance; next time, Anne will measure exactly, and I'll report back, but in the meantime use your judgment.
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour 
1 cup stoneground jonnycake corn meal
½ cup sugar
2 tea baking powder
½ tea baking soda
½ tea salt
¼ lb butter (1 stick)
1 cup buttermilkSONY DSC
2 large eggs
1 cup, approx, coarsely chopped fresh peaches, skin on
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 ear sweet corn, kernels cut off and the cob scraped to release the corn milk
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8” square pan and coat generously with corneal; a pie pan can also be used.
In a food processor with the metal blade, cut the butter into the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until it is no longer visible.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, and beat the buttermilk in until well-blended. Add to this bowl, without mixing yet, about half the dry ingredient/butter mixture, all of the fruit, then the remaining half of the dry ingredient/butter mixture; this gives the fruit a coating of flour before it hits the wet ingredients.  Now gently mix just long enough to lightly incorporate the fruit, dry, and wet ingredients; if the batter seems too liquid-y, add additional cornmeal a few tablespoons at a time.SONY DSC
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake approximately 30 minutes.
Party photos courtesy of Anne’s father, the talented Frank Parker, owner of Bookstand World.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Sublime Sour Cherry

I am not a shrinking violet, as my obsession with sour cherries affirmed this year. As all cherry aficionados know, there are only a few weeks of the year when sour cherries appear at the roadside—in my case, at the fruit lady’s stand. It’s truly a window, somewhere between the end of June and mid July. One watches like a hawk, ready to pounce, for their first showing.
Except that this season they never appeared. The raspberries were there, and they were very good. But the cherries, which should have sat alongside them, were nowhere in sight. There was no reason to believe that something had happened to them—the weather was fine, the other fruit was perfect. Time to take matters into one’s own hands. This, I knew, was not for the faint of heart: the fruit-lady couple were downright peculiar about their fruit. They couldn’t quite make up their minds whether they sold it, or it was a gift, making it darn hard for those of us who just want to buy the stuff. I was once being chastised by his wife for picking up too many blueberries at one time.
I knew that if you stopped at the fruit lady’s stand at the right time of day—say around 11 o’clock—you might catch her husband, the farmer, hanging around. Literally: just sitting near an old camper trailer that they use as an outdoor fruit sorting venue, probably making sure you didn't take too much. I chose my time well, and paid him a visit. After engaging in a little local banter, I ventured, “No cherries this year?” Yes, there were cherries: just hadn’t picked them.
I turned this over in my mind for a moment, and decided it would have been a tactical error to ask why. I went for a neutral but interested, “Really?” and waited. “Why, you want some?” (Of course I want some!) “Yes,” I said. And then came the dreaded question, “How much?” “I’ll take as much as you have,” I said, trying not to sound greedy, more like I would be doing him a favor. He seemed to consider this. “A couple of quarts would be nice,” I amended. “You can pick some if you want,” he said. “Would your wife mind?” I asked, knowing her to be rather prickly—like raspberries, so not necessarily a bad thing, just a fact. He didn’t answer. He just handed me a coffee can on a string, which I put over my head; he put one on himself and headed behind the house. I followed.
He took me to a cherry tree covered with netting to keep the birds away, and lifted it to let me under. It felt a little sinful, like we were cheating on his wife: the tree was laden with perfectly ripe red fruit. We began to pick, surprisingly companionably, and it came out that the popularity of the raspberries led to neglect of cherry picking. And that this particular tree had been planted by his grandfather in the 1930s, when the state of Rhode Island had a program in which they gave away cherry trees to promote their cultivation in the state. “Used to be everyone around here had at least one cherry tree,” he said, “but now we’ve got some of the only ones.”
We dumped our pickings from that 70-year-old tree into three quart containers. He wouldn’t take more than $8.00 for them; after all, he pointed out, I’d done most of the picking. I gave a quart to my friend Anne, and made a small amount of preserves with another. With the last quart, I made the following vinegar and sweet-sour pickled cherries. The cherries have many uses, both sweet and savory. They are wonderful in drinks like the cocktail below.
Sour Cherry Vinegar and Sweet-Sour Pickled Cherries   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
You get two for one with this old method of treating cherries; without the vinegar, it is very similar to the way maraschino cherries are made. You can double it or triple it, if you are so lucky to have all those cherries. Sour cherry season is over, but I waited to post this until my cherries were “done” so I could show you a picture of the finished product.   
1 qt perfect sour cherries
1 qt white or cider vinegar
3 cups sugar
Pit the cherries over a 3-qt glazed ceramic or glass bowl to catch the juice, tossing the cherries in as you go. Pour the vinegar over to cover. Cover with plastic or a towel and let sit on the counter for a good 24 hours. Strain off the vinegar, now a beautiful translucent red color, and bottle it. Use it in salads and sauces for duck, chicken, or meat. You can also drink it, sweetened, over ice; this is called a “shrub.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Put the cherries back into the large bowl or a crock, layering it with the sugar. Cover and set aside in a cool place or, if it is hot and humid, in the warmest part of the refrigerator. Stir it every day for about 10 days—at least a week—then put into jars. Refrigerate or freeze these excellent cherries, which are as good over ice cream as they are as an accompaniment to meat or fish. Or use them instead of commercial maraschino cherries in whiskey sours and other cocktails for a nice surprise.
Sour Cherry Champagne Cocktail
Today is my birthday, and last night at my sister’s we made these delicious cocktails. The reputedly vegetarian dog stole three pounds of sirloin tips from the grill when we weren’t looking, leaving the hamburgers and hot dogs for us; fortunately, my sister also had a few pork tenderloins in the refrigerator. Grilled meat, champagne, and a lovely summer evening: it was a very nice birthday meal.
For each cocktail:
3 pickled sour cherriesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
2-3 teaspoons pickling syrup from the cherries, to taste
Brut champagne
Place the cherries and the syrup in the bottom of the glass, and fill with chilled champagne.