Posts filed under ‘cheese’

It’s been a rough summer

… but I’m slowly starting to get back my sense of smell. Having learned way more than I ever wanted to know about anosmia, I’m thankful that my doctor’s initial diagnosis – a lingering, low-grade sinus infection left over from an awful cold I had in April and May – appears to have been the right one.

It’s been very little fun being unable to smell – or, really, taste – much of anything. Takes the fun right out of eating and cooking, I tell you; I haven’t even bothered going to the market for the past month.

That said, I do have one just-in-time-for-the-season treat to recommend, courtesy of my friend Lisa, who blogged about it:

Smitten Kitchen’s take on tomato pie

Tomato Pie

Tomato pie

Since I still can’t cook by taste, as is my habit, I made this last week following the recipe to the letter (well, OK, I used my food processor on the biscuit crust, and I did follow the advice of some of her commenters and drained the tomato slices before putting them in the shell, with a layer of cheese on the bottom to help seal against sogginess).

And then I invited a friend over for dinner, because while I knew there was nothing about this recipe I shouldn’t like, and it certainly looked wonderful, I couldn’t tell if it tasted as good as it looked – although the biscuit crust was wonderfully flaky and crisp.

My dinner companion, however, deemed it “fabulous.” And had seconds.

(Don’t be put off by the mayonnaise – it merges with the tomato-corn mixture and – again, according to my friend – isn’t identifiable beyond “yum!”)

During the flavor hiatus, and particularly while on the antibiotics that appear to have killed off the sinus ick, I’ve found myself drinking a lot of Reed’s Extra Ginger Ginger Ale. I’m not much of a soda drinker, but ginger calms my stomach and stimulates my appetite, and Reed’s is pungent enough I could almost taste it.

However, it’s spendy, and the bottles aren’t refundable in Oregon. So I rummaged around my bookmarks and found a recipe for home-made gingerale that I’d been meaning to try.

Since one of the things I like about Reed’s is its citrusy base, I altered the recipe a little and came up with something pretty doggoned tasty, at a fraction of the cost of the bottled stuff. If you’re a ginger fancier, try it out. It’s very refreshing – and it also works as a great base for my favorite warm-weather adult beverage, the Gin Gin Mule.

Home-made Gingerale


  • 1 hand ginger, about 4 inches worth, sliced into 1/8″ disks
  • Juice of 4 Meyer lemons
  • pinch salt
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • Seltzer water

Combine ginger, lemon juice, salt and water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Stir in sugar until it dissolves; allow to cool. Pour into a glass jar and refrigerate.

When you want ginger ale, mix a standard shotglass of the ginger syrup with 1 cup seltzer; serve over ice.

I was a little short on ginger last time I made this, so I substituted an inch or so of galangal I had in my freezer, sliced. It adds a lovely floral zing to the syrup.

September 6, 2009 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

Adventures in dairy

Adventures in dairy

Dairy trio

“When denatured in acid conditions, with relatively little casein around, as in cheese whey, lactoglobulin molecules … bind to each other and coagulate into little clots, which can be made into whey cheeses like true ricotta.” – Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”

I’ve been having a week of dairy experiments. It all started with a pint of heavy cream bought as a treat for guests who take their coffee light (I take mine black). They didn’t use much of it, so I decided to use the rest to make créme fraîche, that thick, tangy, cultured cream that’s far superior to sour cream in almost any use.

It’s as easy as can be: Heat a pint or so of cream until steam rises from the surface and bubbles form around the edge, stir in a few tablespoons of cultured buttermilk, pour it into a glass jar and let it sit on the counter, loosely covered, until it’s thick (roughly overnight). Refrigerated, créme fraîche keeps for a week to 10 days, and can be substituted for sour cream in virtually any use; it also makes a superior base for cream sauces, because the culturing prevents it from separating and curdling when heated. And it’s lovely on a biscuit, with just a dab of jam.

However, that meant buying buttermilk, which around here comes in nothing smaller than a quart container. I don’t drink buttermilk. I do bake with it (buttermilk biscuits are wonderful!), but I wasn’t in a baking mood.

So I decided to experiment, and that led me to ponder the wonders of milk and milk products, and how the same basic ingredients, treated differently, can produce remarkably different results.

I could write a treatise on the subject, but I’d rather point readers to Harold McGee and his fascinating book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” First published in 1984 and revised in 2004, McGee’s is not a recipe book, but it’s the text for the cook who wants to know why and how food behaves the way it does, from “why do beans cause intestinal distress” to “why can’t I make a decent meringue on a stormy day?” And the very first chapter is all about milk.

In short, McGee tells us that how milk behaves in cooking is based on its complex chemistry of microscopic fat globules and protein bundles, along with dissolved salts and sugars, vitamins, minerals such as bone-building calcium, and other compounds suspended in the water that makes up most of the fluid. The most important components to cooking are fat, protein and milk sugar, or lactose. (I’m among the majority of adults who no longer produce the enzyme necessary to digest lactose, and am grateful for the over-the-counter tablets that allow me to enjoy dairy products without unfortunate consequences).

A serendipitous aspect of milk is its relationship with a friendly little bacteria known as Lactobacillus. The bacteria renders milk slightly acidic, which helps keep it from spoiling – but it can also be introduced to fresh milk to increase the acid level and create cultured milk products such as yogurt and fresh cheeses.

I’d like to say a word here for whole milk, and against the reduced-fat varieties that threaten to crowd it out of the supermarket dairy cases. Drink 2 percent or skim milk if you must, but understand that cooking with it will produce inferior results. The *behavior* of milk in cooking depends to a large degree on its fat component, and how the tiny globules of fat suspended in the liquid interact with other ingredients. Among other things, McGee points out, “Interactions between fat globules and milk proteins are … responsible for the remarkable tolerance of milk and cream to heat.” A sauce made with cream can be simmered and reduced to velvet smoothness; make the same sauce using low-fat milk and it’s likely to curdle and develop a grainy texture.

Enough chemistry. On with the buttermilk cooking. My little Donvier ice cream freezer has been sitting empty in the freezer for far too long, and the notion of buttermilk ice cream seemed appealing. I had a bunch of lemons in the fridge. So I tweaked my standard ice cream base recipe to come up with:

Buttermilk-Lemon Ice Cream


  • Juice and zest of one large, well-scrubbed lemon
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 large egg yolks


In a small, non-reactive saucepan, combine lemon juice, half the sugar, and the finely grated lemon zest. Heat over medium-low heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Take off heat and allow to cool.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the buttermilk, cream and remaining sugar. Heat until steam rises from the surface and tiny bubbles appear at the edge of the pan, stirring occasionally to keep the bottom of the pan from scorching. Remove from heat.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until well-blended. Keep whisking and slowly drizzle in about a cup of the hot milk mixture to warm the eggs. Pour yolk mixture back into the saucepan of milk, return it to the burner on medium-low heat, and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture has thickened slightly.

Strain into a bowl and place in a bowl of ice water to cool. Once cooled, whisk in the lemon syrup and stir well. Transfer to ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes about a quart of tangy, lemony ice cream that reminds me of lemon cheesecake. I can’t wait for strawberry season so I can try this again topped with fresh local berries!

I still had just over two cups of buttermilk remaining. What to do, what to do? A friend recently described a method for making home-made ricotta cheese, using lemon juice to acidify the milk and transform it into curds and whey. Hm. Buttermilk is acidic, too. Google revealed several recipes for buttermilk ricotta. Oh, hell, yes.

This is so easy you’ll wonder why you never tried it before:

Buttermilk ricotta


  • Four parts whole milk, or part-skim milk plus cream. Do not used ultra-pasteurized milk products for this recipe; the prolonged heating of the pasteurization process will prevent it from making curds. Reduced-fat milk will curdle, but it won’t produce enough cheese to bother with.
  • One part cultured buttermilk
  • Pinch of salt


Have ready a large bowl and a strainer lined with dampened cheesecloth. (Have you tried to find cheesecloth in a supermarket lately? I couldn’t – so I used a Handiwipe ™ having run it through the washing machine to get rid of the fragrance the manufacturer insists on adding to the things. Worked like a charm.)

In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, combine all ingredients and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly until the milk begins to steam and curds start to form. Stop stirring, but continue heating until the mixture reaches 175F and has formed fine curds. Remove from heat and pour carefully into the cloth-lined strainer. Allow to drain until most of the whey is drained off, then gather up the curds in the cloth and hang it from the faucet, or from a spoon laid over a bowl, to continue draining until it’s as dry as you want it. Pack into a clean refrigerator container. Keeps as long as commercial ricotta, but tastes sooooo much better.

The amount this makes depends on a lot of variables – the fat content of the whole milk, the acidity of the buttermilk, and other factors that are hard to judge in advance. I used a pint of buttermilk to two quarts of whole milk, and got almost two cups of cheese – enough for the artichoke-and-pea lasagne I plan to make tomorrow night.

What about all that whey? I confess that I tossed it, but there’s still a good deal of food value there, and I’ve used it before to enrich home-made soups, or to substitute for water in bread recipes.

These recipes would be even better with fresh, whole, local milk. Midway Farms, on Highway 20 between Albany and Corvallis, sometimes carries local milk. I’ve also heard that several local farms offer fresh goat’s milk, which also makes a nice ricotta, but I haven’t investigated.

Four weeks till the Albany Farmers’ Market opens!

March 21, 2009 at 2:17 pm 6 comments

Beets and carrots and herbs, oh my

Roasted beets and carrots

Roasted beet and carrot salad

Friends in warmer climates are telling me about their home-grown tomatoes. I put my fingers in my ears and console myself with the thought that our tomatoes will be along in their own good time – and that, meanwhile, there’s plenty of other flavorful produce showing up at the market.

This week I steered clear of the berries (well, almost. One pint of blueberries doesn’t count, does it?) in favor of vegetables: Carrots, shelling peas, cucumber, zucchini and a big bunch of mixed beets, red and golden and a pretty stripey red-and-white stripe variety.

I love root vegetables, and beets and carrots are never better than when they’re young and tender, full of sweet, earthy flavor. I love to roast them together, and just a little extra effort can make the difference between a nice mess of roasted vegetables and a terrific dish that highlights the subtle differences in the two vegetables flavors.

Beets, even young ones, take longer to roast than carrots. So why not take advantage of that fact and treat each vegetable a little differently, even when you roast them in the same pan?

Roasted beets and carrots with herbs


  • A mixture of red and golden beets (I used six medium-sized beets), scribbed, trimmed and cut in half
  • 1 Tbsp Olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh thyme, finely minced
  • 4-5 medium-sized carrots, scrubbed, trimmed and cut in roughly equal-sized pieces
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds


Preheat oven to 400F.

In a bowl, toss beets with olive oil. Spoon them out, leaving excess oil in the bowl. Place in one layer at one end of a roasting pan and sprinkle lightly with salt; scatter a few sprigs of thyme among them. Place roasting pan in oven. 15 minutes into cooking, use a slotted spoon to turn the beets.

Meanwhile, add carrots, vinegar, maple syrup and cumin to the bowl and toss well.

When the beets have been in the oven 30 minutes, add the carrots at the other end of the pan. Continue roasting for 15-20 minutes more, stirring once to turn, until tender and lightly caramelized.

Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly so you can slip the skins off the beets without burning yourself. Serve warm as a side dish, or, as I did, allow the vegetables to cool to room temperature, slice them into bite-sized pieces and serve them on a bed of lettuce with a little blue cheese, some toasted hazlenuts and a light vinaigrette incorporating a touch more thyme.

If you don’t have the time or energy to bother with roasting them, young beets and carrots are also splendid raw, grated or sliced paper-thin, and added to a salad or slaw – or just tossed with a little Meyer lemon juice, sprinkled lightly with salt and heaped on a plate as a crunchy, vivid savory.

July 20, 2008 at 7:48 pm Leave a comment

How it really works

shrimp and asparagusFoodbloggers sometimes leave the impression that every meal involves planning, shopping, research and recipes. I can’t speak for the rest, but that’s not how it usually works at my house.

Rather, a typical evening meal happens something like this:

  • Get home from work. Feed the cats. Water the garden. Check my e-mail and phone messages. Get distracted uploading photos to Flickr. Realize that my stomach is growling.
  • Wander into the kitchen. Open the refrigerator and stand there staring at the contents. Wonder why I have so many condiments, and how I acquired three half-empty bottles of club soda .
  • Discover something potentially tasty. Think, “Hm, what could I do with that?”
  • Start improvising. Taste. Improvise some more.
  • Declare it dinner. Eat.

All of which is to apologize for the fact that a lot of my favorite meals don’t come from, or produce, recipes – they come from inspiration, and keeping good ingredients on hand. Which means either keeping notes as I go (and who does that?), or trying to reconstruct the dish after the fact, and explains why I often use such technical terms as “a handful of this” or “a glug of that.” In short, I cook pretty much like my mother and grandmother did, except that I’m lucky enough to have a much wider range of ingredients at my disposal.

Last night I was inspired to put together what turned out to be an absolutely delicious pasta dish using local vegetables, herbs from my garden and one of my favorite regional cheeses. I would love to give you a detailed recipe, but I don’t have one. So I’ll tell you what I did, and encourage you to try your own improvisation. Like much of what I cook, this dish could spin off in several different directions, depending on your tastes, your dietary requirements and what’s in your own refrigerator. Frankly, about the only thing you could do to mess it up would be to overcook or overseason.

Pasta with shrimp, asparagus and smoked blue cheese: An improvisation

  1. I usually have a bag of quick-peel shrimp in the freezer, in whatever size is the best price at the supermarket. They’re practically a staple. Last night’s dinner started with pouring a quantity of shrimp into a colander, setting that in a bowl in my kitchen sink and filling it with cold water to thaw the shrimp, a process which took no more than 15 minutes or so – just long enough for me to water the garden.
  2. Once the shrimp were thawed, I peeled them, set some water to boil for pasta, and got out my small skillet, which is the perfect size for one serving of pasta topping; it went on the burner with a little olive oil.
  3. While the oil heated, I chopped a bit of sweet onion and a couple of cloves of garlic; those went into the skillet at medium heat. Practically everything I cook that isn’t dessert starts with “chop some onion and garlic.”
  4. The fridge revealed a half-dozen spears of asparagus left from last weekend’s farmers’ market run. Shrimp and asparagus go great together, so I snapped off the woody ends (and tucked them into my freezer bag of veggie trimmings for stock) and cut the spears in inch-long pieces.
  5. Also in stock: An unopened wedge of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue Cheese, one of those “ooh, must try this!” finds from the supermarket. Rogue makes terrific blue cheeses at its creamery down in Central Point (a great side trip if you’re heading down to Medford or Ashland), and I was delighted to discover that Ray’s Market in North Albany currently has three or four varieties (including a lovely Chipotle Cheddar) in stock. I hope they plan to keep the brand in stock.
  6. Brain starts working, inspired by tastebuds: Asparagus … shrimp … smoked blue cheese. Oh, yeah, baby. The water was boiling, so in went the pasta – just good old spaghetti, although I could have chosen rotini, flat egg noodles or Japanese soba; I tend to keep a lot of noodles on hand.
  7. Once the onion and garlic had begun to soften, I tossed the asparagus and shrimp – both of which benefit from quick cooking – into the pan. Some liquid seemed required, so I opened a bottle of Elk Cove Pinot Gris, poured a splash into the pan, filled my glass and let things simmer a while.
  8. I’d pinched some herbs to stimulate branching while I was watering the garden earlier. No point wasting those tender, aromatic bits, so I minced thyme, oregano, Italian parsley and a couple of tiny basil leaves, and tossed them into the mix.
  9. It took less than five minutes for the shrimp to turn a delicate, opaque pink and the asparagus to reach that vivid-green stage that signals crisp-tender. Time to lower the heat waaaaaaay down to continue reducing the liquid, and add some of that blue cheese, crumbled. I thought about adding a spoonful or two of creme fraiche*, but that seemed excessive. A quick taste (blow on the spoon!) confimred that no further seasoning was required.
  10. In less than a minute of stirring and tossing, the cheese had begun to melt and merge with the pan liquids, so I took the skillet off the heat, plated some pasta and spooned the sauce over it.
  11. One final inspiration: Walnuts. I love the combination of blue cheese and walnuts, so I grabbed a small handful from the bulk bag I keep with baking supplies, broke them with my fingers and scattered them on top of the dish.

Holy cow, that was good. And with a pretty good ratio of local-to-not-local ingredients, too:

  • Local: Asparagus, onion, garlic, cheese, herbs, wine. OK, the cheese and wine aren’t local-local, but I’m willing to stretch the boundaries of “local” to encompass Oregon-made food produced within a few hours’ drive.
  • Not local: Shrimp, pasta, olive oil. And everything but the oil could be local, if shrimp is in season and you make your own pasta. For that matter, you could omit the shrimp and increase the asparagus and have a perfectly satisfying vegetarian meal.

* You know about creme fraiche, don’t you? If you don’t, you should. Milder than sour cream, plus a distinctive, almost nutty flavor, it’s great for saucing dishes because its high butterfat content prevents curdling. It’s also lovely dolloped onto fresh fruit or a scone, floated on top of home-made soups or used any way you might use sour cream or whipped cream. Not easy to find here in the Valley, it sometimes turns up as a specialty item in a supermarket cheese section – I last found it at Safeway, but they don’t stock it regularly.

However, you can extend the life of a single small container by using some of it to grow your own. Just warm a cup or so of heavy cream in a small saucepan (don’t let it boil), let it cool to body temperature, stir in a big spoonful of creme fraiche and pour the mixture into a glass jar with a good lid – a canning jar works great. Let it sit at room temperature for a few hours until the cream has thickened (I drape a clean dishcloth over the top to keep out stray environmental yeasts, which can spoil the culture) then lid and refrigerate. Creme fraiche keeps for a couple of weeks, and you can keep culturing more from each batch. You can also use buttermilk as a culture-starter, but I find the resulting flavor a bit sharper and less delicate.

June 25, 2008 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

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