Posts filed under ‘Cooking from scratch’

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

Cooking from the larder

Two months till the farmers’ market opens for the season, and I’m in “OK, time to start polishing off the things I put in the freezer last fall” mode. Including, this week, a 4-pound boneless pork shoulder from Wood Family Farms.

Four pounds is a lot of pork roast for one person. But pork shoulder is a lovely cut. More fatty than the overrated tenderloin, but slow-roasting melts most of the fat away, basting the meat as it goes and leaving a tender, flavorful meat that’s not only lovely on its own – with a side of potatoes, perhaps, and some of the remarkably cheap California asparagus that’s been showing up in Safeway – but also useful in wonderful second- and third-day meals that turn the word “leftovers” into something magical. Cuban pork sandwiches, for instance, or a hearty, spicy New World stew.

Slow-roasted Pork Shoulder


  • 3 to 4 pound boneless pork shoulder.
  • Rub:
    • 2 Tbsp mustard seeds
    • 2Tbsp cumin seeds
    • 2 Tbsp black peppercorns
    • 1 Tbsp garlic powder
    • 1 Tbsp kosher salt
    • 4 Tbsp brown sugar


Make the rub by grinding together the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns and salt. I keep an old electric coffee grinder for grinding spices; a food processor or mortar and pestle will do, too. Mix in the brown sugar.

Rinse the pork roast and pat dry. Turn the fatty side up and use a sharp knife to score it in a diamond pattern, making sure the cuts go clear through the fat and into the meat.

Using your hands, pat the rub firmly all over the pork, bottom side first; turn it over and massage the rub deeply into the cuts in the fat (the salt content will help draw moisture away from the surface and create a nice crust.) Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate from 3 hours to overnight.

When ready to cook, remove the roast from the refrigerator, take off the plastic wrap and place the meat on a rack in a roasting pan. Pour a little water in the bottom of the pan to prevent smoking, and cover the pan with aluminum foil Let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Roast, covered, for two hours; then remove the foil and continue roasting for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until an instant-read thermometer inserted at the thickest point of the roast reads 170F. Remove from oven; let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Cuban-Style Pork Sandwiches

Now, that's what I call a sandwich.It’s been years since I had a real Cuban sandwich, bought from a stand-up roadside joint in Florida. I have no idea if this is authentic, but it’s the result of a good deal of Googling and some experimentation that led to the flavors I remember. I’m told that in Cuba, the mojo would be made with the juice of sour oranges, which aren’t available here, but lime juice is terrific.


  • Roast pork, sliced thinly.
  • Onions, sliced thinly
  • Hearty bread or Panini-style rolls, split. You want bread that’s substantial enough to stand up to the juiciness of the filling; I’d just made a loaf of the infamous New York Times no-knead bread, and it was perfect.
  • Mojo sauce (see below)
  • Butter

Mojo sauce

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • Juice of a lime


In a very small saucepan, combine olive oil and garlic. Heat till oil is bubbling, then reduce heat to a slow simmer. Cook 10-15 minutes until garlic is golden and soft. Stir in cumin and lime juice. Remove from heat.

Making the sandwiches

Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet. Add onions and sautee until they begin to soften. Add thinly sliced pork and stir until the meat is hot.

Brush both halves of a roll or two slices of bread generously with Mojo sauce. Pile meat on one slice of bread or half a roll; top with sauteed onions and the second piece of bread/roll

Wipe skillet clean and return to burner. Add a small amount of butter and heat till melted. Grill the sandwiches, pressing down with a spatula and turning when one side is done, until golden brown. Serve with beer and lots of napkins.

New World Pork and Pumpkin Stew

New World StewI had a lone sugar pumpkin left from my last market trip in the fall; stored in the cool basement, it’s kept well but I noticed a spot of mold forming on the skin and decided it was use it or lose it. Google turned up a number of recipes combining pork and pumpkin, many of them Thai or Burmese, along with an interesting-sounding stew that contained ingredients I’m not crazy about (turnips) or didn’t have on hand (kale). Improv time! I went for flavors native to the Americas, and what resulted was easy, relatively quick (as compared to starting from raw pork) and extremely tasty. That’ll be lunch for most of the week.


  • 2 lbs roast pork, cubed. If there are fatty bits, render them to substitute for:
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp crushed dried red pepper (I used some peppers I bought at the market last year and threaded on heavy thread to dry. Hot, but not too incendiary).
  • 1 cup good vegetable or chicken stock (from the freezer)
  • New potatoes, scrubbed but with the peel left on, cut into bite-sized pieces to make about 1 cup
  • 1 small pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut in 1–inch chunks
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, drained.
  • Salt and pepper to taste


Put oil or rendered pork fat in the bottom of a heavy, lidded pot or dutch oven. Heat and add onions and garlic; cook until golden brown. Stir in the cumin and chiles. Add the cubed pork, and cook, stirring, till thoroughly heated (if you roasted the pork with a rub, the yummy browned crust will come off and incorporate into the onion/garlic/spice mixture. This is a feature, not a bug). Remove meat to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Add potatoes and pumpkin to the pot. Stir to mix well with spices and onion. Add stock; bring to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes or so, until vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes and pork, stir well, and simmer for another 10-15 minutes to combine the flavors.

Like most good stews, this one’s even better the second day. Serve with a green salad and hearty bread.

February 15, 2009 at 7:54 pm 1 comment

Winter food: Apples and sweet potatoes

Apples and baby sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes, apples, etc.

It’s turning out to be a busy January for me. Between work and play rehearsals, I have little time to cook most evenings, so I try to find time on the weekends to make two or three good-sized dishes I can reheat through the week to keep me from resorting to drive-through meals.

This weekend it’s a pair of roasted pork tenderloins and a hearty, aromatic side dish of apples and baby sweet potatoes that isn’t much different in preparation from good old apple crisp, except that it’s considerably less sweet. I use about one part sweet potatoes to three parts apple, but you can adjust the proportions to suit your own tastes.

Have you tried baby sweet potatoes? I first encountered them last winter, and was glad to see them at the supermarket again this year. Like most “baby” vegetables, they aren’t immature, they’re just a pint-sized variety of their bigger cousins. I love them; well-scrubbed, rubbed with a little oil and tossed in a hot oven, they roast up in under 30 minutes. Or try this recipe for salt-crusted baby sweet potatoes – delicious!

The bags I buy include both the sweet, creamy red varieties and their less-sweet yellow cousins (yes, these are both sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, not yams. True yams are members of the Dioscorea family, and aren’t much found outside of South America). They are not, alas, local – they come from California – but the apples were!

Apple and Sweet Potato Crunch


  • 3 Granny Smith apples, or other tart variety, peeled, cored, cut in half-inch thick chunks
  • 5-6 baby sweet potatoes, or 1 (peeled) regular-sized sweet potato, cut like the apples.
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
  • 1/2 cup uncooked steel-cut oats (or regular old rolled oats, as long as they aren’t the instant kind)
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp each of cinnamon and allspice
  • a dash of cloves
  • a dash of nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsp of high-quality candied ginger (try Trader Joe’s Ginger Chips if you can find them!), chopped
  • 1/4 cup butter, cut in small pieces


Preheat oven to 350F. Place apples and sweet potatoes in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Mix remaining ingredients except for butter, and toss half of that mixture with the apple-sweet potato mixture. Place in a baking dish – shallow or deep, it’s your choice, and sprinkle the rest of the spicy oat mixture evenly over the top. Dot with butter.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the apples and potatoes are fork-tender and juice is bubbling up. Serve hot, as a side dish – or as a not-too-sweet dessert with cream or ice cream on top.

January 11, 2009 at 8:38 pm Leave a comment

From scratch: Creme fraiche

A reader looked at last night’s recipe and e-mailed me to ask:

“I see that the creme fraiche is optional, and I’ve never seen it in stores here. What purpose does it serve? Is the sauce as good without it?”

Creme fraiche is nothing more than cream that’s been inoculated with naturally occurring bacteria that thicken it to the consistency of sour cream. Besides adding a subtle nutty, tangy flavor to sauces, it has the added quality of helping sauces thicken up nice and smooth without curdling or separating the way commercial sour cream often does.

Like you, I have a hard time finding it in stores. I hear it’s a regular item at Trader Joe’s, but the nearest TJs is an hour’s drive from here. Locally, it shows  up in  the supermarket once in a while with the gourmet cheeses. But it’s really easy to make at home, and I do so when I have extra cream and buttermilk on hand – for instance, in the aftermath of a recent bout of holiday baking.

Here’s how:

Creme fraiche


  • Two cups of heavy cream (I try to avoid the ultrapasteurized kind, because it doesn’t seem to thicken as much).
  • 1/4 cup of cultured buttermilk


Have ready a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Canning jars work great.

In a small saucepan, heat the cream until it’s just lukewarm – no more than 85 degrees (F). If it gets too hot, it’ll kill the friendly bacteria that do the work, so use a candy thermometer and if it overheats, let it cool to 85.

Stir in the buttermilk, and pour the mixture into the glass jar. Cover it with a piece of waxed paper held on with a rubber band. Set the jar somewhere warmish – I like to use the cupboard above my oven, which is one of those eye-height models. Leave it alone for 24-36 hours, until it’s nice and thick, like sour cream.

Remove the waxed paper, screw on the lid and refrigerate. It will thicken a bit more in the refrigerator. Use in sauces, soups, dips, or anywhere you’d use sour cream (it’s great on baked potatoes). I’m told it will keep for up to 10 days, refrigerated, but mine never lasts that long.

You can use active culture sour cream in place of the buttermilk, but in my experience, the flavor isn’t as good. My favorite cornbread recipe uses buttermilk, so I tend to have it on hand, especially during the winter.

I’ve been pondering how best to use this blog during the winter months, when local produce is scarce. I’m thinking of writing more entries like this one, talking about things we can make from scratch to stretch our cooking repertories. And perhaps some about garden planning, and interesting/unusual food crops you can grow at home to expand your range. What, after all, could be more local than your own back yard, patio or kitchen?

I’d welcome suggestions from readers (both of you!)

December 11, 2008 at 10:21 am Leave a comment

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