Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chai-Spiced Pear Butter

After staring at several baggies of dried pears I bought too long ago (that obviously nobody has been eating because they would possibly dislocate your jawbone), I decided that they would be perfect candidates for pear butter. I threw them into a pot of water and boiled them until they were soft enough to puree. The flavoring came from a bottle of chai-flavored syrup that I found way too sweet to use to make drinks. You could substitute the typical chai-style flavorings of vanilla, cardamom, clove, and honey, or even make your own syrup by reducing some of that boxed concentrate or sweetened tea. Again, quantities are estimates; cook by "feel."
  • 8 oz unsweetened dried pears (or you can use a couple pounds of fresh pears, too)
  • 1/4 cup chai-flavored syrup (or strong-brewed chai tea + 2-3 Tbs. honey)
  • 2-3 cups water
Bring water and pears to a boil; reduce to simmer and cook 20-30 minutes until pears are well softened (if using fresh pears, the will break down significantly). Transfer mixture to a blender or food processor (or food mill if you have one) and process until smooth. Return to pan, add flavoring, and heat over medium heat (so that pockets of air occasionally break the surface) and cook until desired consistency is reached. Preferrably, the mixture will not collapse on itself when stirred--remember you will (probably) be spreading this onto toast or biscuits.

Spoon mixture into jar(s)--if you will not be eating this right away, you can process in a boiling water bath in sterilized jars for 10-15 minutes.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Making Your Own Yogurt without a Yogurt Maker

I have long wanted to give making my own yogurt a shot, but I’ve always been afraid that it would be a tricky, delicate procedure that wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Was I ever wrong! The process is quite easy, involving only a few simple steps, and the kids got a big kick out of seeing the final product (which was practically spot-on). While there isn’t really that much that the kids could help with (other than reading the thermometer and stirring the mixture a few times), I think the benefit here is two-fold: 1) the kids get to create a nutritious alternative to store-bought candy-yogurt, 2) they get to learn a bit about the process of culturing and live bacteria. It is a bit of a lengthy process, so it may be tricky to get the kids involved from start to finish, but really each step is quite brief, with lots of “downtime” in the middle, so that if they can be snagged for a few minutes here and there, I highly suggest including them!

Supplies needed:
1. 1-quart glass jar, 2 pint jars or 4 half-pint jars
2. Candy or meat thermometer
3. 2 qt (or larger) saucepan
4. 2 or 3 quart glass jars (for the culturing process)
5. Small cooler or insulated box (if you don’t have one, you can use your oven set to the lowest temperature, but the process is a bit trickier)
6. One quart milk*
7. One Tbsp plain LIVE yogurt (suggest Nancy’s, Mountain High, or other good quality yogurt with live bacteria)

I consulted my sister, who has been making her own yogurt successfully for several months, and here is the procedure that she suggested:
1. Sterilize the jar(s) that you plan to make the yogurt in in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Reserve the water for Step 4 instead of dumping it down the drain!
2. Heat milk in saucepan almost to boiling (the surface will get frothy).
3. Remove from heat and let cool to 105 degrees F (this is where the thermometer comes in) — this step can take an hour or more.
4. Meanwhile, you can prepare the cooler and remaining jars (which do not need to be sterilized). If necessary, wipe out any dust/debris from the cooler you are using. You will want to fill the cooler with jars filled with boiling water. The idea here is that the cooler will insulate the milk mixture enough to keep the temperature up so that bacteria will continue to grow overnight. I used a small “lunchmate” cooler and needed only two extra jars, but if your cooler is larger, you may need more. You will also want to “insulate” the yogurt jar from the hot-water jars with a dish towel so as to prevent it from getting too hot at first and killing the bacteria.
5. Once the milk has cooled, stir in the yogurt (make sure to stir well to disperse the bacteria).
6. Pour mixture into the sterilized jar(s) and place into the cooler with the hot-water jars, separated by the towel. Set a lid loosely on top of the yogurt jar(s) to prevent contamination.
7. Close the cooler lid (note: if you are using a larger cooler than necessary you may want to cover all the jars with a couple of towels to aid in insulating them).
8. Let sit overnight, or up to 36 hours**
9. Check your yogurt — it can be considered “done” now. Stir and taste. **You can let it sit longer if you want it thicker or more sour, but you may have to reheat the hot-water jars to keep the optimum growing environment.
10. Now you can enjoy your yogurt anyway you want. Our family likes to stir in honey, maple syrup, or jam to sweeten, and top with granola. It is also suitable for smoothies, baking, and anything else you would use yogurt for.

If your yogurt is lumpy, run it through a fine-meshed sieve. If the consistency is not thick enough for you, lined the sieve with cheesecloth or a papertowel and let the yogurt sit for several hours or overnight until desired consistency is reached. The liquid (whey) that drains off of the yogurt is a great and healthy addition to smoothies or baking, so don’t toss it! Also remember to save the last spoonful of your homemade yogurt to make the next batch!

*any kind of natural milk will work (not soy milk, nut milks etc); the lower the fat content, the thinner the consistency of the final product

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cioppino (Italian Seafood Stew)

I was introduced to this dish at the Snow Goose Brewery in Anchorage, Alaska, and again experienced it in San Francisco, reputed to be the birthplace of the Italian seafood stew; neither was like the other, yet both were delicious. You can use any combination of seafood you desire; traditionally, shellfish are cooked in the soup base in their shells, which can make for rather messy eating, but also provides a deeper flavored base. I opted to only leave the tails on the shrimp as the rich tomato sauce would have been everywhere.

  • 1 bulb fennel

  • 1 onion

  • 4 cloves garlic

  • 3 ribs celery

  • 1 small bell pepper (preferably red)

  • 1 28-oz can stewed tomatoes, chopped or ground

  • 3 cups water

  • 1-2 lbs various seafood (scallops, shrimp, mild white fish, mussels, crab, clams, etc.--I used about 8 oz each bay scallops and shrimp and a can of chopped clams)

  • 1 Tbs. dried parsley

  • 1/2 tsp. dill weed

  • 1 tsp. dried basil

  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme

  • 1/2 cup white wine

  • Olive oil

  • Salt and pepper

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot. Saute fennel for 5 minutes, until it starts to brown slightly. Add onions and garlic. Saute 5 minutes over medium-high heat. Add celery, bell pepper and herbs; stir in tomatoes and water; bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until fennel is tender. Meanwhile, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a skillet over high heat. Quickly cook scallops and shrimp just until done. Stir in the wine and add seafood and sauce to the soup. If using other seafood, add it to the soup prior to cooking the scallops and shrimp. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

PS- I think the juice from the clams really helped this along; if you are not using clams, I would suggest some good seafood stock in place of the water.

Creamy Grits/Polenta with Green Chiles and Poached Eggs

While some brands of Polenta/Grits will have you believe that they are one and the same, the grits I grew up on are definitely not polenta. They are made from hominy corn, which is corn treated with lye to remove the hull from the kernel. They have a slightly different taste than the Polenta/Grits, though the texture is relatively the same. What you see pictured here are Polenta/Grits (also called "yellow grits") but I'm sure both will yield ideal results.

Cook grits according to package directions for one serving (I usually use about 1 1/2 cups water to 1/2 cup grits, but you can adjust the amount of either for thicker or thinner grits). Add 1 Tbs diced green chiles (of course I had red ones, too, so I used both), 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1 Tbs. butter or a fingerful of grated cheese to the cooked grits. Stir until cheese is melted. Serve topped with poached egg, fresh ground pepper and an additional spoonful of green chiles. With fall quickly settling in, I had a craving for something warming and soothing. This definitely hit the spot!

For perfect poached eggs, I used Smitten Kitchen's advice. Note: this was only my second attempt at poached eggs without one of those little cookers; after the first time I tried it, I swore I'd never cook them in this way again; thanks to Smitten Kitchen I will probably never use the cooker again!