18 February 2012

Sexy Cheese and Homemade Ricotta

My husband gave me Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll for Christmas the year before we moved to the farm.  In our family that’s the equivalent of giving lingerie:  It’s more appreciated by the giver than receiver.  It's possible that he finds the cheese-making book sexier than lingerie.  His love for cheese may rival his love for boobs. 

Dairy has never been my favorite food group.  I've gone years without any dairy save the cream in my morning coffee, but marriage greatly influences diet.  I long ago said goodbye to onions and mushrooms.  My breadcrumb panacea worked on most vegetables, but onions and mushrooms are his last bastion of vegetable hatred.  I also added more cheese and cream to my dishes in order to satisfy his dairy lust.   We come to an easy agreement on ricotta because of its importance in Italian-American cuisine.

Ricotta is is essential for lasagna, baked shells and manicotti, and eggplant parmesan, but is also used in baked goods and desserts.  I will soon be trying ricotta cheesecake and I've come across some interesting recipes for ricotta ice cream. I like making it myself because the flavor is fresher than store-bought.  Also, I can ensure there are no preservatives or additives and the milk is of best quality. Whenever we have extra milk from our local cow, it goes into a batch of homemade ricotta. 

Homemade ricotta:

Pour 1 gallon of whole milk (the least processed milk possible--avoid ultra pasteurization like the plague) into a stockpot.  Slowly bring to 185 degrees.  Spend the $10 on a candy thermometer.  It's worth it for this and all the other recipes you've avoided because you didn't have one.  If the ricotta doesn't convince you, then let me say caramel.

milk warming

As soon as the milk is 185 degrees, turn off the heat and add your acid.  Many recipes suggest ordering rennet, but I've always used 1/2 cup vinegar because I always have it on hand.  I'm sure white distilled vinegar is best, but I've used cider vinegar too.  Stir slowly until curds form.  I swear the amount and rapidity of stirring affects the texture, but I could be crazy.  Don't quote me on it.  Unless I'm right.

curds separated from whey

Cover with a cheesecloth or clean towel and leave to cool.  Once cool, remove curds with a slotted spoon to strainer.  Strain until cheese is desired dryness.

curds draining
For a creamier ricotta, substitute a cup or two of heavy whipping cream for some of the milk.  Or in a pinch, put ricotta in your mixer and slowly add milk until desired consistency.  Store in a glass container.   I bet it will last at least a week, but always do a smell test after several days. 

creamy ricotta

I like ricotta because of its freshness and firm texture.  I don't belong to the gooey cheese camp.  My husband, on the other hand, belongs to the any cheese camp.  One of his favorite ways to enjoy ricotta is on pizza with Italian sausage and crushed pepper.  Now that's sexy.

sexy pizza

15 February 2012

La Redneck Española

I love Spain.  I spent a semester abroad in Sevilla in college and am dying to return.  I miss my host family.  I miss all the places I frequented for five months.  I miss exorbitant amounts of Rioja, cafe con leche, olives, and fresh seafood.  It's almost painful thinking about it. 

In effort to satisfy my Spanish desires, I've been watching Spain On the Road Again.  Mario Batali, Mark Bittman from The New York Times, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Spanish actress, Claudia Bassols, eat and drink their way across Spain.  This has neither diffused my Spanish urges nor encouraged my efforts to get back into my bikini this summer. 

To indulge my craving for Spain without dropping two grand on plane tickets, last weekend we did Spanish cuisine meets Midwest preserved foods along with the only four bottles of Rioja I could find in a 30 mile radius.  Note to self: pick up Spanish wine next visit to Chicago.

The bottle of white was chilling.  Don't bother making note of any of these labels.  Mediocre would be a generous description. 

My objective wasn't to perfectly recreate my favorite Spanish dishes as I've already learned the hard way that grilled octopus and marinated anchovies aren't quite the same when prepared at home.  Instead, I wanted to take our preserved garden items and prepare them al estilo de España.  Finding new uses for the same old preserved items in like being on a daily episode of Chopped.  Fortunately, I don't have to make something edible with the combination of frog legs, starfruit, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and quinoa.  I am calling on my culinary creativity to work our way through the loads of garlic, dried hot and sweet peppers, frozen zucchini, dried eggplant, and canned tomatoes.  The following dishes are the result:   
Gambas al Ajillo (Prawns with Garlic)
Prawns with Garlic is admittedly a stretch as a Midwestern dish.  The prawns are obviously not local, but the garlic and hot pepper are from our garden. I had to include it because it's a popular tapa and also the most dangerous thing I've ever eaten.  Early in my abroad stay, a friend and I decided to make a night of trying standard local fare, including the gambas al ajillo.  Prawns are baked in a bath of olive oil, garlic, and the traditional guindilla--a very hot pepper. The prawns are delicious and the oil and garlic bits are great for dipping bread. I thought I had found a crispy bit of garlic and inadvertently ate the guindilla. I love spicy food. This was not spicy food--I had swallowed the atomic bomb and unfortunately, caused quite a scene. I was embarrassed;  the waiter was annoyed. The incident didn't go without reward though:  three gentleman from Amsterdam found the situation quite humorous, joined us, and ended up paying for our meal and wine. That was definitely the silver lining especially since the next day I woke up with the entire top layer of my tongue missing. I detailed the experience in my weekly email to my family.  My mother's response to my lengthy letter was one line: "Giana, please stop putting strange things in your mouth."  Even then, I couldn't make any promises.

The peppers are not guindillas.  Broken, dried cayenne peppers work well for the right amount of spice.


shrimp or prawns
garlic, chopped
dried hot peppers, such as cayenne
olive oil

Rinse raw shrimp or prawns.  Place in a baking dish with coarsely chopped garlic, dried hot pepper, and a lot of olive oil--enough to come at least halfway up the shrimp.  Bake at 475 for 7-9 minutes.  Every time I ordered this dish, it was always brought to the table sizzling.   

Pisto Manchego (Roasted Blended Vegetables)

Pisto Manchego is the Spanish answer to ratatouille.  It is a combination of roasted peppers, eggplant, onions, and tomatoes blended into a course puree.  This was a perfect dish to try since we've barely made a dent in our canned tomatoes and dried peppers and eggplant.  The Spaniards often serve it with meat or eggs.  We ate it all week with meat, on bread, in an empanada.  I think it would be fantastic on sliders with grilled sausage.  I'm looking forward to trying it with fresh vegetables this summer, but it was still very good using preserved vegetables. 

Preserved pisto manchego ingredients:

1 quart chopped tomatoes
1 onion
5-8 dried sweet Italian peppers, rehydrated
1 cup dried eggplant, rehydrated
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon tomato conserva (optional)
1 tablespoon pepper conserva (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
kosher salt

Coarsely chop onion and fry in olive oil until soft and a bit caramelized. Add chopped garlic. After a few minutes add rehydrated peppers and eggplant. After a few minutes, add tomatoes. Cook until all vegetables are very soft. Stir in conservas and kosher salt. Once cool, coarsely blend in food processor or blender.

the vegetables cooked and cooling

after blending


I don't recall eating very many empanadas in Spain.  I was too busy eating crustaceans. I vaguely remember my host mother, Charo, serving ones that could easily fit in my hand.  In Spain On The Road Again, they visit a woman famous for her empanadas.  Hers is very large, like a stuffed pizza, and filled with cured ham, chorizo, and onions.  I wasn't about to go on a Spanish meat hunt and my husband does not eat onions so I created my own filling of a layer of the pisto manchego and a layer of freshly-made ricotta.  This is certainly not authentic, but a tasty use of on-hand ingredients.  I look forward to trying an empanada with a more traditional filling. 

the mother empanada

served in individual portions

Empanada ingredients:

double batch of pizza dough
pisto manchego
olive oil
kosher salt

Roll out two rounds of pizza dough.  Place one round on a well-oiled pan.  Spread 1/2-inch layer of ricotta on dough leaving 3 inches around the edges.  Spread pisto manchego on top of ricotta.  Lay other round of dough on top and fold over edges.  Cut vents into the top of the empanada and rub dough with oil.  Bake at 450 for 25-30 minutes.

Croquetas (Fritters)

Croquetas are ubiquitous little fried morsels in Spain.  They are usually filled with ham or cheese or some sort of shredded meat.  I used our frozen shredded zucchini.  While these aren't like the croquetas de Sevilla, they were still good and a much more exciting use of shredded zucchini that its typical place in soups and stews. 

zucchini mixture rolled in seasoned breadcrumbs

crispy croqueta goodness


1.5-2 cups of well-drained shredded zucchini
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg, beaten
2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs
olive oil

Mix zucchini, flour, salt, baking powder, and egg in a bowl.  Drop small spoonfuls into breadcrumbs and roll into small balls or logs.  These are best small to ensure they cook all the way through.  Drop into hot oil and fry until crispy and golden brown.  Serve with dipping sauce. 

Our weekend certainly didn't take the place of tapeando por Sevilla.  I dream of dining on coquinas on the banks of the Guadalquivir, an afternoon Cruzcampo after walking extensively through my old neighborhood, Los Remedios, and of course, late-night churros con chocolate.  Until my long-awaited Spanish reunion arrives, it's exciting to recreate tapas with the ingredients from my winter pantry while sipping a glass of mediocre Rioja.  It will make the real thing all the more delicious when it finally comes, provided no one eats the guindilla.

09 February 2012

Adventures in Preserving

The 2012 garden season is almost upon us.  In preparation, we've reviewed our successes and failures.  When we design our garden we plan for both fresh-eating and preserving.  Preserving garden vegetables requires work.  I didn't mind preserving as much as possible this past summer because I wanted to make up for my inexperience and move myself along the canning learning curve.  Canning tomatoes in my sauna of a kitchen every other day in August and September taught me a lot about the process.  It also taught me that you darn well better love tomatoes to make the effort worth it.

They look innocent. Don't be fooled.

There are several methods of preserving.  In order to see what we liked best, I tested most methods.  I froze peas, snap peas, shredded zucchini, chopped green beans, blanched eggplant, quartered tomatoes, rhubarb puree, cantaloupe puree, basil pesto, and cilantro pesto.  I dried sweet and hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and spices.  I canned chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato salsas, green tomato jam, pepper jelly, pepper relish, and peaches.  We root-cellared potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, carrots, parsnips, and squash.  We cured onions, leeks, and garlic. I pickled snap peas, made hot sauce from our peppers, and preserved a few things sott'olio, or under oil.  It's a common practice in Italy, but isn't unapproved by the FDA.  I preserved tomato and pepper conservas and spicy marinated eggplant sott'olio

frozen quartered tomatoes, basil pesto, shredded zucchini, and peas

We've adjusted the amount of which we will grow and preserve.  There are certain things that we won't grow at all this year, for example, turnip and rutabaga.  They always make me think of The Middle Ages.  The horrible sulphurous smell was probably a welcome potpourri to cover the smell of the Black Plague wafting in from the filthy streets.  With the advent of penicillin, I see no good purpose for the smelly roots.  Remember when you were a kid and you had the friend with the house that smelled?  Remember how you never wanted to play at that house? Yeah, that's my house.  G'bye turnips and rutabaga.

be happy this isn't a scratch and sniff blog

Also, melons got nixed.  I enjoy a good watermelon--one good watermelon.  The 125 or so we grew last summer were 124 too many.  I pureed and froze some of the cantaloupe more out of guilt than desire.  Someone please tell me what the hell I planned to do with that--and do not say smoothie.  No one wants a cantaloupe smoothie.  After cutting and eating more melon than I've ever wanted and giving away as much as we could, most of them ended up becoming a good circuit training workout of carrying them to the compost pile.  No thanks.

One picking of cantaloupes. I never eat cantaloupe!

I could write at great length about the vegetables we love for fresh-eating and my favorite ways to prepare them, but for the purpose of brevity and focus, this post is devoted to my favorite preserved foods from this past season.  The criteria to qualify as a favorite is as follows: it's versatile, it's delicious, it's worth the effort, and I look forward to repeating it this summer.

Spicy Pickled Snap Peas

Our snap peas were abundant.  We enjoyed them steamed, sauteed, and stir-fried, but they were best pickled with garlic, dill, and hot pepper.  One packet of seeds provided enough to eat fresh and then pickled all summer long. They made a great appetizer paired with an IPA as we sat around the picnic table in July.   

snap peas

pickled with hot pepper, dill, garlic
Hot Sauce

I will definitely make hot sauce again.  Homemade hot sauce has great flavor along with heat.  It's simple to prepare and gives your sinuses a good clearing in the process.  I vaguely remember doing it: there was pureeing of many Hungarian hot peppers, bringing them to a gentle simmer with vinegar, water, and sugar, and then bottling them in absolutely pointless squeeze bottles after cooling.  Next year I will keep it in jars rather than the cheap squeeze bottles that get clogged with pepper chunks and slowly drip hot sauce all over my refrigerator.

Hungarian hot peppers are first purple, then red when ripe


I had a hard time convincing myself to can salsa.  I mean do I really want to chop onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs and then spend hours canning them over the hot stove just so that I can crack a jar open on a Saturday night after three or seven beers and eat the whole jar in less than four minutes in a flurry of splintering tortilla chips? No.  Luckily, after three or seven beers I don't venture into the root cellar in fear that I may never make it out, and my salsas have remained for the explicit use of braises, sauces, and soups.  I found a great guide to canning salsas from the University of Wisconsin and canned eighteen pints. I've made simple middle-of-the-week meals with a pint of salsa and few other ingredients.  The spicy cilantro salsa is great for braising skirt steaks.  The mild salsa with parsley is great for a quick pasta with homemade ricotta.  This past week I made a southwest-style bean soup with a jar of spicy salsa, several cups of homemade stock, dried beans, frozen peas, frozen shredded zucchini, and a few ounces of frozen cilantro pesto. It was an inventive, healthy, and delicious way to use our preserved vegetables 

the remainder of our salsa in the root cellar

Frozen Zucchini and Peas

If you are watching your budget or care about local eating and sustainability, zucchini and peas are very exciting.  Zucchini and peas are both very easy to grow:  they both can be planted directly (you don't have to start the seed early), require little maintenance, and are prolific.  Furthermore, they both are very easy to preserve with a little freezer space.  In winter when everyone else is buying insipid hothouse vegetables or those imported from another continent, we have our tasty homegrown vegetables.  Shredded zucchini is the perfect vegetable because, if prepared properly, it takes on the flavors of your dish while adding texture, fiber and nutrients, and substance.  I throw it in soups, stews, pastas, chilis, and muffins to add a few unnoticed vegetable servings to our diets.  Peas freeze beautifully and can be added to most of the aforementioned dishes.  They also hold up well enough to serve as a simple vegetable side with butter, if that's your style.  For me, peas will always belong with pancetta and cream over pasta, but I mainly keep them in soups to salvage what remains of my waistline. 

pea plants

peas prior to shelling


Anyone with an herb garden and minimal patience can make and freeze pesto.  It's an easy way to make good use of summer herbs.  I'm not a huge fan of pasta with basil pesto, but I make it ceremoniously once or twice a summer to give thanks to the basil gods.  I froze about a dozen several-ounce servings of basil and cilantro pestos in very small Ziploc bags.  Traditionally, pesto is made by blending basil, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese.  For the sake of freshness, I omit the cheese when freezing it.  And for the sake of our budget, I eliminate the pine nuts--I think they are now more expensive than saffron.  Traditionalists swear that is must be made with a mortar and pestle, but I did not acquire one until after basil season so my pestos were made with a food processor.  For a fast meal mix a few ounces of basil pesto with some heavy whipping cream over hot pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan (kind of a paisana mac n cheese).  Or, stir some pesto into mayo and toss shredded chicken into the mixture for the best chicken salad sandwich ever.  After my minestrone experiment, I've found that pesto is a wonderful garnish for soups.  The cilantro pesto this week was nothing short of miraculous in the spicy bean soup.  Pesto is also great for a quick crostini with goat cheese.  I'll put almost anything over goat cheese.

spicy cilantro bean soup

There are other preserved items we've enjoyed and will repeat, but thus far, those previously listed have proven the most versatile and worthwhile.  I will continue to experiment with our frozen, canned, dried, cured, and sott'olio bounty.  And while we decide what to do with our former melon, turnip, and rutabaga beds, there will be some serious removing and bleaching of the cruciferous stink creeping up from the root cellar.



02 February 2012

Country Lovin'

The weather has been refreshingly mild this week--mild enough for a few walks to the creek.  Sorry, the crick.  Apparently I've been saying it wrong my whole life.  Maybe one day I'll be able to pull off charming colloquialisms.  With a warm breeze on my neck and the intoxicating smell of grass, the sensations of spring provided a welcome respite from the typical Midwest January cold and grey.  It also reminded me of why I love the country.  It's easy to love the country when it's warm, but in the middle of winter, I need a refresher course.

the area down by the creek is a prime example of pastoral beauty

As someone who didn't spend any real time in the country until my twenties, I've been acclimating for a decade.  Falling in love with the country was much like falling in love with my husband.  It wasn't love at first sight.  It was better: a love that slowly, profoundly, and permanently takes over.  Also, like my spouse, the country is honest.  It doesn't have tricks.  It doesn't win you over with anything fancy, but with real heart.  It doesn't pull any punches.  You can love it with both eyes open.

Now that's a crick

The idyllic setting put me in a country state of mind and I began compiling all the reasons I love the country:

1.  We don't need to get into a car to visit nature.  Being able to walk down to the creek is a real luxury.  It's deeply relaxing to lose yourself in the sound of running water, the open space, the fresh air.  Being able to so easily escape from the sights and sounds of civilization is easy meditation. 

2. We don't have to wear pants around the house.  We can run from the house to the garage in underwear and no one notices.  If I felt so inclined, I could probably go for days, maybe weeks without even worrying about pants. That's not a welcome activity in most neighborhoods.  If I were a man, this category would be labeled you can pee outside, which I've noticed is quite an exciting privilege for them.  I'm admittedly jealous.  Either way, the privacy factor out here is definitely a bonus.

3.  There's wildlife.  OK, it's not like we've encountered the Blue-Footed Booby or stumbled upon manatees in the creek, but it's still cool to see hawks circling above the farm.  It was a great learning experience for Viv when a bird made a nest for her babies in one of our tomato plants last summer.  We checked on them every morning.  I almost stepped on an iridescent frog in the garden several times.  Just last week I saw thirteen deer. At once. I'm assuming that's good luck. There was a herd of them grazing in the field across the road. I don't know if you call it a herd, or if they technically graze, but you get the picture. My Father-in-law pointed them out and Viv and I ran to the window to see. Just as I was thinking "I should go grab my camera", my Father-in-law said, "I should go grab my gun". We both wanted to shoot them. Neither of us used our relevant equipment. It's a good thing because I don't have any deer recipes. I'm thinking venison braciole might be good though. 

psychedelic frog

4.    We can have a fire in our backyard.  In fact, we can have two.  Sitting around the fire at night with a 6-pack (read: 12-pack and an unexpected bottle of wine) is a great way to enjoy summer nights as a family.  We hang out, laugh, and burn stuff. Awesome.

fire pit

5.  That brings me to one of the very best things about the country: the stars.  We can actually see them!  I can now locate the North Star and the Dippers ah-thank-you-very-much.  We saw countless shooting stars while sitting around the fire this past summer/fall.  Who needs cable when you've got a fire and stars?

6.  We have  magical people next door.  No, not imaginary ones.  I moved to the country and I got an on-call handyman father-in-law that fixes drains, sinks, heat, and anything else that malfunctions.  And I got a fairy godmother-in-law from whom I borrow baking dishes, flour, and vodka.  I love the country!  In all fairness, not everyone who moves to the country gets these luxuries.     

Disclaimer: When we lived in the suburbs my mother regularly brought over dinner and wine and my very handy father surprised me with a pre-lit Christmas tree .  We're spoiled regardless of location.   

7.  We are surrounded almost entirely by uninterrupted space.  The country boasts its simple beauty when you can watch a storm roll in and out, see a generous stretch of rainbow, watch the sunrise and sunset, view miles of twinkling lightening bugs, and observe an ocean of soybeans undulating in the wind in unison.  Breathtaking. 

the ocean of soybeans
rainbow over the garden

summer storm rollin' in


8.  We can grow our own food.  What makes a freshly-picked garden tomato so good?  It's fresh.  It grew in the ground, not a hothouse.  And in our case, it's completely unadulterated.  Not only is it delicious, but I can feed it to my daughter knowing that I'm serving her something nutritious and uncompromised by chemicals and preservatives.  Because of this, I am now more apt to appreciate the simple meal.  Good ingredients don't need much help.  Perfect tomatoes sauteed with a little olive oil, basil, and a pinch of salt is the best compliment to any pasta.  Also, I'm learning as we get further into the winter that our preserved garden foods taste better than store-bought.  The canned tomatoes don't taste canned; frozen peas are sweet; the peppers in my home-canned salsa are still crisp and flavorful.  I'll gladly continue to can in my hundred-degree August kitchen in order to taste good food in January.

Viv knows a good tomato

I was happy living in the city, the suburbs, and now the country.  Each certainly has its advantages.  Upon beginning this post, I asked my husband what made him want to return to the country.  His answer was straightforward:  the land.  A decade ago I wouldn't have had much understanding for his answer, but I'm starting to get it.  It definitely gets in.  Aside from the beauty and other perks, it gave me my country man who taught me real country lovin'.