Hausfrau Roadshow

The Hausfrau usually keeps to herself more than you’d imagine when she’s out in public. True, I have a life in the world, and I talk to people  and stuff, but by and large I don’t put on my Hausfrau hat unless specifically asked to, like when I’m asked to be a guest on someone’s radio show or something. But today I was at a pricey supermarket downtown, and a moment just happened and I had to spring into action in Hausfrau, or maybe Housebitch, mode, to help out a total stranger.

I was at the Elm City Market, which is not in fact the most expensive supermarket in the State of Connecticut, but a lot of people feel like they gouge you. The reality is, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, more nuanced than that. Anyhow, I decided today to stop in and buy a challah from the company they stock (just to see what it’s like) and also pick up something to serve for Shabbat dinner. Also to buy the fancy non-mint toothpaste I like; I’m low on toothpaste. Not that you needed to know that.

So I’m standing there at the packaged meat section, which is not the same as the meat counter, and wondering if I should buy some meat there or go to my usual butcher on the way home. I don’t like to buy meat from anyone except Jimmy at P&M, but I was already anticipating a rather complicated agenda and I decided that to simplify matters I would get my meat at Elm City Market. I stared at the options and noticed that ground beef was on special. I hefted a package and decided to go for it (we’ve been eating chicken all week, and meatloaf is always popular here). I was wondering if I should get one package or two when a man squeezed in next to me and stared, befuddled, at the shelves.

“Am I in your way?” I asked him.

“No, you’re good,” he said. He looked around and saw packages of hamburger patties,”Ok, here we go,” he said. He grabbed one, started to walk away, and then came back. “I better get two,” he said.

He turned to leave and something in me just had to say something. “You could save a lot of money buying a package of this instead!” I said to him, pointing to the packages of ground beef. The man stopped short. “What?”
I said, “Look, what do those hamburger patties cost per pound?” He said, “I dunno!” He looked at the packages. I can’t remember the number he read off, but it was in the neighborhood of $7 per pound. “This stuff’s only $3.49 a pound,” I said. “Do you need the meat to be already in patties or can you make the patties yourself?” “Aw, my wife’s making it!” he said. “Well, does she mind shaping the patties?” “No, she don’t mind,” “Well,” I said, “Why not save yourself a few bucks? I mean, that’s a lot of meat to buy at a higher price.” “Boy, you’re right,” he said, putting the patties back and reaching for a package of the cheaper, less-elegantly presented meat. “I’m not really a grocery shopper,” he said. “But that’s a big difference.”
I nodded. “It’s ok, I am a grocery shopper, and I just … I don’t know, I had to say something.”
“No, I’m glad you did!” he said. “You take care, now,” he told me, and I waved as he dashed off to the checkout line.

I paid for my few purchases and took the bus home, thinking about it for a while: how many people need help figuring out how to buy groceries? Is this how everyone buys food? Am I the only person who thinks, “I will NOT pay extra for pre-formed hamburger meat?” I mean, I never make hamburgers at home, but —

It was all very interesting. I came home and made a panade to use to make my meatloaf. I’m wondering if that guy’s wife will see the meat this afternoon and say, “Hm, this would make a good meatloaf. I’m gonna make meatloaf instead.” I really hope she does. The world needs more homemade meatloaves.

Double Cream. Maybe. I’m Not Sure.

The other day I was at the Elm City Market in downtown New Haven. It used to be a genuine food co-op; the co-op failed, and now it’s just a grocery store that caters to an extremely food-aware, and pretty affluent, clientele. Some items are crazy expensive and some are perfectly reasonable. On the whole, the quality is very good indeed. While I do not do most of my shopping there (far from it) I’ve come to rely on it for a few categories of things I can’t easily obtain elsewhere.

A case in point: it is one of the few shops I can get to easily that has my preferred brand of milk — Farmer’s Cow — in big jugs. We go through a lot of milk, and while I’m not wild about buying milk in plastic jugs, generally, there’s no question this is more cost-effective than the waxed cardboard cartons. So once in a while, I pop by the Elm City Market and buy milk; I also like to snag Cabot or Arethusa Farm Dairy brands’ sour cream, and sometimes I’ll pick up a tub of really good yogurt, usually Arethusa.

A few days ago I was in there getting my milk and some yogurt and my plan was to buy a big tub of yogurt so that we’d have some to eat for a few days and then I’d use the last of the yogurt as a starter for a batch of homemade. I thought, “Well, with this big container of Farmer’s Cow milk, we should be fine,” but then my eye landed on a smaller container of milk that had a $1.99 sale sticker on it. Kimball Brook was the name of the dairy. I knew nothing about it. But it said “Cream on Top Whole Milk,” and I found that interesting. I decided that for two bucks, I could afford to take it home and see what it was like.

This afternoon I opened the carton because I needed milk for making carrot pudding. Actually, I needed cream, which was something I didn’t have (technically speaking). Reading the recipe that said I needed 1/4 cup of heavy cream, I thought, “I bet the stuff on top of that carton of milk will work,” so I opened the milk, and I’ll be damned: the stuff on top of the milk was a solid, unpourable mass. In a good way. “HOLY CRAP,” I said loudly. My daughter, sitting at the kitchen table glumly writing a thank-you note, said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “But you remember how we were watching Two Fat Ladies and they were using double cream to make that cake?” My daughter nodded. “I think I have double cream here,” I said, peering into the bottle. “Look at this!” I said. I carried the bottle over to her. “Ewwwwwww,” she said, squinching up her nose.

“No,” I said, “This is incredibly cool.” I took a knife and jabbed it into the carton. Milk came up through the cream; the cream had formed a plug, a second seal, on top of the milk. “This is just like the milk that your grandma and I used to buy when we lived in England,” I said. “This is amazing!”

“Gross,” said my American daughter.
“Be that as it may,” I said, “I am using this to make dinner.”

I used it to make a carrot pudding. Carrot pudding is the kind of vegetable pudding that was standard fare in households in another era: a pureed, cooked vegetable, with cream and egg added, poured into buttered ramekins, and baked. In this case, a pound of carrots was prepped, boiled in a small amount of water, and then pureed with two eggs, salt, pepper, a pinch of nutmeg, and about 1/2 cup of cream from the top of this bottle of milk. The recipe I used (which I found somewhere online, and which was sufficiently dull and inaccurate that I’m not even going to link to it) advised using 1/4 cup of cream (which didn’t seem like a enough to me) and baking the puddings for twenty minutes. At twenty minutes, these things were still basically raw. It took 45 minutes at 375° to get these done correctly. When you put the puree into the cups, it just looks like orange slop, not too inspiring. But it bakes up into this sweetly puffy little thing that you can either serve in the ramekin or turn out from its mold onto a plate. It’s true it’s not an exciting dish, though certainly one could add spices and such to make it more interesting. I think the purpose of it is just to hide the essential fact of “vegetable” and make it soft and comforting and a bright, colorful spot on an otherwise drab plate of food. In my case, I was serving it alongside peppery steak and a delicious-but-not-interesting-looking curried rice with chickpeas and coconut milk. So the carrot pudding was just the thing.

However: there is no question that Kimball Brook Farm milk is a very interesting addition to my kitchen. The milk is very rich. I am looking forward to making yogurt with it. Stay tuned.

 

Easy Cooking for the Easily Distracted: Pasta with Onion, Egg, and Sour Cream

Maybe this sounds vile to you, but bear with me. I didn’t serve this to my family (though maybe I should); this is a meal I made for myself on a night when I was alone in the house and I didn’t have to worry about making anyone but myself happy.

I was, I should add, also making chocolate honey cakes at the same time I made this meal; part of why I did what I did was that it allowed me to be cooking dinner at the same time I did other things — other much messier, more attention-demanding things. Baking chocolate honey cakes is all well and good but it takes energy. Making pasta with onion, egg, and sour cream takes (I learned) very very little energy, though it does require time.

This meal was going to be just pasta with onions and sour cream, but then I mistakenly cracked open four eggs when I only needed two for the cake; so I incorporated the other two eggs in the pasta dish. No one suffered as a result, I can assure you.

In a small heavy pot heat up a couple tablespoons of olive oil (not extra-virgin) and a tablespoon of butter. Thinly slice two large onions and a couple of fat cloves of garlic and bung them into the pot; let them cook for a really long time. Like, an hour and a half even, Stir occasionally. Grind in some pepper. The onions let off a lot of liquid; let them just simmer in their juices, with the heat on pretty low, but not all-the-way low.

In a small bowl, whisk together two eggs (I had jumbo eggs on hand, so that’s what I used) and a couple tablespoons of sour cream. Grate in maybe 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.

Cook fettuccine (or other long skinny pasta) in boiling water; drain; dump egg mixture and onion mixture on top and toss and toss and toss.

The resulting dish is delicious, but very dull looking. I make no apologies. It would be a nice side to serve with some red meat and a bright green vegetable. But I ate it all by itself (and all by myself) for dinner tonight. And I will do it again some day, I am sure.

How to Cook Pasta: By Request

The other day my husband and child and I were in the car and our daughter was bemoaning the fact that she doesn’t know how to cook. We pointed out that she can barely see into pots on the stove — she’s not tall enough, and I hold that if she has to stand on a chair to see what’s going on at the stove, she’s not tall enough to safely cook — so it’s not really something we expect of her at this point. “I can’t even make noodles,” she lamented.
“Well,” I said, “That’s not true, really, you know exactly how to make noodles.”
“No I don’t,” she pouted.
I said, “Sure you do. What do you do, you boil water in a big pot, and you put in the noodles.”
“But I don’t know EXACTLY how to do it,” she said.
“Why don’t you tell her how?” suggested my husband.
And so I began a monologue. “First you get a big pot and you fill it about halfway or two-thirds with water. You need a lot of water, but you don’t want to fill it all the way to to the top, because then the pot is too heavy to lift. Then you put the lid on the pot and you put the pot on the stove and you turn on the burner to the highest heat. Then you wait for the water to boil.”
“How do you know when it’s boiling?” my daughter asked.
“Well, you can hear it,” my husband said.
“You can hear it, and also you see steam shooting out from under the lid,” I said. “And when you lift the lid to look inside you’ll see the water’s all bubbly, big bubbles rolling up to the top of the pot, not little bubbles. So then you take your pasta and you dump it in and you stir it right away. You have to stir it right away or else it’ll stick together and you can’t unclump it later. And you need to stir the noodles once or twice while they’re cooking.” My husband nodded.

“So you let the pasta boil. Sometimes it cooks really fast and sometimes it takes a little while. Spaghetti is usually about nine or ten minutes.”
“How do you know how long?” asked my daughter.
“The box usually tells you. It depends on the shape. Chunk-style shapes take the longest time usually, maybe ten minutes. The shortest time is angel hair, which cooks really fast, in about three minutes. Really fast. So you have to keep an eye on it before it turns into mush.”
“So then,” I continued, “You get a colander out and you put it in the sink. Before you put it in the sink, though, you should make sure you don’t have dirty dishes and stuff sitting in the sink. Make sure the sink is empty before you put the colander in. You put in the colander, then you go and stir the noodles again, and you pull one out to test it that it’s cooked. If it’s cooked the way you want it, then you take pot holders and you carry the pot to the sink and you pour the water out through the colander, and you let the noodles fall into the colander. Then you put the noodles back into the pot and put on your sauce and you’re done.” I thought for a minute. “Sometimes, before you drain the noodles, you want to dip a measuring cup into the pot to save some of the cooking water.”

“How come?”
“Because sometimes you want the cooking water to help make your sauce right. Like when you’re making a pesto sauce, if it’s too thick to stir into the noodles, you can thin it out with the cooking water. Also it helps to heat up the sauce a little bit, so you’re not just dumping cold-from-the-fridge pesto sauce onto your nice hot noodles.”

“You should write this down,” my husband said.

So I did.

Postscript: one regular reader, who doesn’t cook much, asked me in a private message, “Aren’t you supposed to put salt or oil or something into the water to keep it from boiling over?” I remember that people talk about these things all the time.
I can’t believe I linked to a Smithsonian Magazine article about cooking, but there it is: when I Googled on the subject, this was the first thing that came up, and it wasn’t such a bad recap of how to make pasta (though clearly the commenters find it lacking, and if I were to write it, I’d do it differently (duh, look what you just read), but whatever).
Anyhow: There is a school of thought that says you should add a bit of oil to the pot to prevent boiling over: I hold that if you don’t fill the pot too much, this ceases to be a concern, and that doing this is basically a waste of good oil and makes for a nastier pot to wash up without much benefit during the cooking process.
As for the salt: the reason to add salt has nothing to do with water boiling over, but is about adding flavor. Some people really like salt a lot. I find that I am easily overwhelmed by salt in food, and see no reason to add it to pasta water. If I do this, I am very likely to feel that the finished, sauced dish is ludicrously over-salted, because I’ve got my sauce salted to the degree I like. (If my husband and child want to add salt, as they often do, that’s their business. I don’t like that they add salt, I find it insulting, but it is their choice, and I do understand that.) This is particularly an issue with sauces that have a lot of Parmesan cheese in them, because Parmesan is really salty.

So I don’t salt my pasta water.

The real issues with making pasta are 1. don’t let the noodles stick together while cooking and 2. don’t overcook them. The fact is, you CAN make good noodles in a minimum of water (you can, if you want to, cook noodles the way you’d make risotto, though you’d have to have a weirdly shaped pan if you wanted to do it with spaghetti — short, chunk-style shapes, though, and orzo, this is not a problem). But your average spaghetti-with-meatballs dinner, follow my instructions and you’ll be fine.
Not you are planning to make spaghetti and meatballs or anything.

Deviled Beef: or, The Nameless, Delicious Thing Peg Bracken Told Me to Make

When I bought a sirloin steak last Friday, I thought I was buying one nice, big, fat steak. I admit I wasn’t paying close attention to the details of the object, standing at the butcher counter. The meat weighed a little more than two pounds, which was what I was concerned about: I wanted leftovers.

What I didn’t realize, until rather late in the game — I had already broiled the entire slab of meat — was that what I really had was three separate steaks that happened to be attached to each other with these big webs of fat. I’m not complaining. The steak was delicious. But it did mean that when I went to slice the steak last Friday night, I had a small technical problem as one mini-steak separated itself from the rest of the meat and I came close to making a big mess on the counter with the dripping meat juices. It all turned out fine, don’t worry: I managed to flip everything onto the carving board and all the juices landed in the board’s channels, just the way they were supposed to. Nothing landed on, say, the filthy kitchen floor. And as it happened, the piece that had seceded from the United Pieces of Steak was just enough to serve the three of us comfortably on Friday night, and the two remaining pieces turned out to be just right for two other projects. I was vindicated, regarding my plans for leftovers, and the meat itself had done the portioning for me.

One leftover mini-steak was turned into nachos the other evening, as longtime readers may recall. And you longtime readers are now probably wondering, “What did you do with the last of the meat?”

At this juncture in the narrative, let us now remember Peg Bracken’s writings on the subject of leftover meat, in The I Hate to Cook Book.

Peg Bracken was, of course, a genius on the subject of what to do with leftover food, and the world owes her thanks on this matter. But the fact is, one of her suggestions regarding leftover beef is something that I’ve read a thousand times or more and never tried. It is this:

“And have you ground up a chunk of it with pickles and onion and celery and added some mayonnaise, as a spread for after-school sandwiches?”

To this, until recently, all I could ever say was, “No, why would I want to do that?” Not when I could do things like make chili or nachos or beef stroganoff out of my leftover beef! It wasn’t until recent years that I began to think, “That might be pretty good.” The younger Hausfrau — the pre-Hausfrau Hausfrau — always read this and thought, “I’m supposed to grind up meat with pickles? Are you insane?”

Well, I have been wrong.

Last night I took my last few ounces of sirloin steak and threw it into the food processor with a hefty hunk of red onion, a tablespoon of powdered garlic, and some mayonnaise, and I made a tan mush that looked disgusting. I scraped it into a mixing bowl and folded in a couple tablespoons of pickle relish. It looked vile. But I was undaunted. Appearances can be deceiving. Much as cakes that are works of sugar art can taste like chocolate-scented cardboard, many things that look revolting often taste very good.

My husband came home and peered into the bowl and said, “Tuna salad sandwiches for dinner?”

“No, it’s… beef spread,” I said, a little dubiously, I confess. “I don’t know what you call it, really.”

“I bet it’s really good,” he remarked. My husband has never met a thing involving beef that didn’t brighten his day. My daughter, a more skeptical meat-eater, came into the kitchen and peered into the bowl with great hopefulness and then got a sad look on her face. This stuff does not look appetizing at all. Have I mentioned this before? Because it’s true. But I took a dab of it and offered it to her to taste. “Here,”I said. She opened her mouth and I stuck my finger in and she looked happy.

“Dinner won’t be ready for about twenty minutes,” I said. “Get out of the kitchen.” My family went and sat on the couch to watch stupid cat videos and I thought, “I’ll make them a little appetizer.” I made two small sandwiches with the beef glop and brought them to the couch. Then I turned and went back to working on dinner.

“How is it?” I called from the kitchen.

“It’s really good,” my husband said.

“Does our daughter like it?” I asked.

My husband said, “I don’t know, she’s too busy cramming the rest of it into her mouth.”

I ambled back out to the living room. “Is it good?” I asked my daughter.

“Can I have another one?” she asked.

Let’s call it Deviled Beef. You could call it Beef Salad, you could call it Beef Spread, you could call it That Stuff That Looks Like Something the Cat Gakked Up. Deviled Beef sounds the most appealing to me.

There are a lot of articles online that talk about this substance, which is simultaneously ubiquitous, it seems, in certain low-brow food circles, and entirely undiscussed in others. The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, who has a vast following, wrote a piece about this delicious stuff almost exactly six years ago. But I’ve not seen the articles I expected to see. I expected to see swooning from someone at Epicurious.com about how this old-timey sandwich spread deserves to be served on crackers or Melba toasts at your next cocktail party. I expected to see some hipster-y piece somewhere, maybe from Serious Eats, about how beef spread can be a solution to your picnic sandwich woes this summer. I expected some food blogger to have a thousand words on Peg Bracken’s beef spread and how it’s an unappreciated work of genius. If nothing else, I really thought the Peg Bracken angle would have led some Bracken fangirl to write about beef spread, or salad, or whatever you call it.

What I found was a fair number of very middle-America websites suggesting we grind up our beef with mayonnaise and pickle relish and things (hard-boiled eggs often came into play, as with Ree Drummond), and a lot of comments from people saying, either, “Oh my god, that looks like baby vomit” or “My grandmother used to make this and it was delicious.” I found a website that talked about Southern food and gave a recipe for Roast Beef Spread which looked pretty much like what I’d made, but there are no comments on it (not that kind of site, I guess). But Saveur hasn’t talked about it, though they’ve discussed pimiento cheese at great length. I don’t recall anything about beef spread in Cook’s Illustrated. And Tamar Adler and Sam Sifton haven’t written about it, to the best of my knowledge.

In other words, this substance has not yet made it into the elite (or elitist) food world yet, the way deviled eggs and pimiento cheese cycled back in a few years ago. (I still haven’t recovered from the time I went for drinks at a fancy bar that specializes in serving bourbon, and they charged me $7 for three deviled eggs. I don’t mean three whole eggs. I mean, three half-eggs. Seven bucks. For seven bucks, I could make about 48 deviled eggs.) It may be that deviled beef is just too disgusting-looking for it to have a cultural and culinary renewal, but that would be a mistake. This stuff is good. And it’s economical. Not that that is the point. The point is, it’s good. But if I ran a restaurant and had a lot of leftover beef around — not hamburger meat, but leftover steaks or something — I would totally make a killing selling this stuff to my customers.

I’ll tell you how good it is. After I denied my daughter a second deviled beef sandwich last night — because we were soon to sit down to eat huge bowls of Pasta Natalie — she asked me, “You’re gonna make me a sandwich of that for lunch at camp tomorrow, right?”

Deviled Beef Sandwich

 

The answer is Yes. And furthermore, I intend to spend some serious time fiddling with this stuff. Deviled Beef is going to be awesome with horseradish, with capers, with chimmichurri blended in….

The Effort Required to Get to Monday Evening

We were out of town over the weekend, visiting friends in Vermont, and while it is always delightful to visit these friends, inevitably it is always a pleasure to come home. The three of us love hanging out in their kitchen and tramping through the woods surrounding their house (well, my husband and child enjoy that last part; my grouchy presence there is merely tolerated). It’s like the bit in one of the Madeline books, I think it’s Madeline and the Gypsies: The best part of a voyage, by ship or train, is when the trip is over, and you are home again.

One challenge, however, is getting everything taken care of The Day After. We came home late Sunday night, exhausted, and I knew Monday would be a bear. It was. I faced many loads of laundry (see: tramping through woods, summer use of towels). And it also came to my attention that I had to run the full dishwasher that had been sitting for three days, a neatly stacked cabinet of festering filth. I never once considered that I might not have something I could make for dinner on hand, because I am someone who Has Faith in the Pantry, but come afternoon, I had to think hard about it. What was I going to make for dinner?

I picked my child up at camp and as we walked home, she asked, as she always does, “What’s for dinner?” and I said, “I’m not really sure. I just know it’ll involve leftover steak.”

This led me to think even harder about what was waiting for us at home. There was a tomato; a few tablespoons of chimichurri sauce; sour cream; the steak.

“Nachos,” I said. “We’re having nachos.”

“Mmmmmmmnachos,” my daughter said enthusiastically.

In the end, these were nachos that deserve honor in the Nacho Pantheon. These were heroic nachos; they were so good, they did not require sour cream or salsa.

I had about seven ounces of broiled sirloin I could use up, but I opted to use only a third of it. I minced it finely and threw it into a mixing bowl. To this I added:

an ear of corn, kernels shaved off the cob; about 1/2 cup of minced black olives; two scallions, thinly sliced; one finely diced tomato and its juices; three tablespoons of chimichurri sauce. I mixed this all together with a fork and let it sit for a few minutes while I got the rest of my act together. This involved taking a bag of tortilla chips down from the cabinet above the fridge and pulling a brick of cheddar from the cheese drawer in the fridge. I got a baking sheet out and covered it with a layer of chips. Then I tossed forkfuls of the meat-and-veggie mixture here and there over the chips. I grated cheese all over that, and repeated the process until I had used up all the m-&-Vs and all the cheese.  I dotted some pickled jalapeños over the top — so that they’d be easy for my daughter to remove them from her serving — and I put it into a 400° oven and let it bake for about ten minutes.
Usually when I make nachos, there are some leftovers. Not a lot, but enough for me to heat up and eat as a mid-day snack the next day. In this case, there were no leftovers. At all. These nachos were so ridiculously good, unembellished by salsa or sour cream, it was just shocking. With sour cream and salsa, they were criminal.
The tragedy, of course, is that there’s almost no way I will be able to pull this off again. But we will always have the memory of those perfect nachos.
I imagine some readers are wondering why I didn’t make them again with the rest of the leftover sirloin steak. AH: therein lies a tale.

A Plan Hatched in 1993 Comes to Fruition

Ever since I read More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin I have thought, “I should make yogurt.”
This is a book I purchased the day it arrived at the bookstore where I then worked. I was making $5 an hour, which is to say, bupkes, but I bought it in hardcover and brought it home hours after I’d freed it from the shipping box. I carried it home, made myself a meal of spaghetti with pesto sauce (in those days I bought pre-made pesto sauce), and sat down to eat. The very first thing I did was inadvertently fling a blob of pesto onto one of the pages of the book, staining it permanently. I think I cried, I was so angry at myself, but I quickly grasped that Colwin wouldn’t mind at all, so I blotted off as much oil as I could and then kept eating and reading.

In this volume, Colwin assures her readers that any damned moron can make yogurt. I was skeptical, but thought, “Maybe she’s right. She wouldn’t lie to me.” And so I got the idea in my head that someday I would make yogurt.

Every six months or so, ever since then, I have had the thought, “I should make yogurt. See how easy it really is.” But I never did it. Whenever  the thought crossed my mind, I would be lacking one of the essential ingredients — I didn’t have enough milk on hand, or I didn’t have good, plain yogurt. There were times when I would deliberately buy fancy milk or fancy yogurt, thinking, “I will use these to start my own yogurt,” but it never worked out. This went on for decades. It’s now 2016, after all.

But yesterday I was spending an afternoon at home. My daughter had, rather uncharacteristically, decided to take a nap. I was downstairs and awake, willing to do something in the kitchen, but not willing to make a lot of noise (so anything involving the stand mixer was out). I realized that I had on hand a nearly full carton of Preferred Milk (Farmer’s Cow whole milk) and about a third of a tub of very good yogurt from Arethusa Farm Dairy.

“Here we go!” I said. And so I pulled More Home Cooking from the shelf and got to work.

Colwin says that making yogurt is ridiculously easy and that you don’t need a thermometer to do it, to which my response is, “Maybe YOU don’t need a thermometer, but I’m glad I have one.” I did exactly as she said. I took 2 1/2 cups of milk and brought it to a boil in a pot. She doesn’t tell you to have the pot boil over and make a huge mess, but I achieved this effortlessly, as well. I then simmered the milk for two minutes and took it off the heat and let it cool down. It needs to come down to a temperature between 110°-115°, which takes longer than I would have guessed if I’d just been relying on my finger to test; I was glad to have the Thermapen to let me know what was what. (Colwin says, by the way, to bring it down to 110°, but when I looked in other cookbooks to see how their recipes compared, what I found was a range — between 110° and 115°. When mine was at 114°, I moved.)

When the milk is cool enough, you whisk in your yogurt starter. I used about 1/4 cup of the Arethusa yogurt. I then made a mess on the counter pouring all of the milk and yogurt into the glass Mason jar, but most of the stuff got into the jar. I closed the jar, wrapped a tea towel around it, and set it by the stove. You want to keep it warmish while it’s fermenting or doing whatever it’s doing. I then had a lovely time cleaning up the milk from the stovetop and the countertop.

After dinner last night, when I was cleaning up the kitchen, I noticed the jar sitting by the stove and wondered if it would remain warm enough. I had just scrubbed out the biggest Dutch oven we have and it was still warm from the hot water. I decided to put the jar into the Dutch oven and balance the lid on top. I figured the residual heat couldn’t hurt the yogurt and might help it along. A lot of yogurt recipes tell you to keep the jar by the pilot light of your oven to maintain temperature, and that’s great advice, but I don’t have a pilot light of which I am aware (though there must be one, since I have a gas stove). What’s more, if I put the jar into the oven and left it overnight, I would be all but guaranteed to forget about it, which I know would lead to total disaster. So the “jar-int0-warm-Dutch-oven” plan seemed like a good compromise. I balanced the pot lid on the top of the Mason jar and turned off the kitchen lights and went up to bed, thinking, “Well….. we’ll see what we’ve got in the morning.”

Everyone writes about how when they first start making yogurt the results are soupy. That’s the word everyone uses: soupy. So I didn’t have very high expectations for my first attempt; I figured that the worst-case scenario was that I’d make soupy yogurt and then spend some time draining it with cheesecloth or use it to make a yogurt cake. I wasn’t optimistic about the process but I was curious to see what would happen.

This morning when I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee, I noticed the pot on the stove and thought, “Come on, who left a pot on the stove last night?” and remembered that it was me. Then I remembered the whole yogurt thing. I took out the Mason jar and shook it a little: would the yogurt just splosh around in there?

To my astonishment it did not splosh at all. It was a solid mass with just a little bit of whey floating at the top. In other words, it looked exactly like real yogurt. I opened the jar and took a spoonful of it: it tasted just like real yogurt.

In other words: I had successfully made yogurt. And it really was easy.

So now I feel like a jackass for not having done it before.

On the bright side: I now get to spend time thinking about how to make it even better. Must remember to add Farmer’s Cow Half-and-Half to the shopping list.

Postscript: I fully expected my husband and child to be excited about the yogurt this morning, and to want some with breakfast. My husband is in the habit of eating yogurt in the mornings, so I was particularly confident that he would want some. Instead, he complained, “What happened to my Arethusa yogurt? There’s hardly any left in the tub.” I said, astonished, “I used a quarter cup of it as a starter for the yogurt I made yesterday.” He said, “So you didn’t really make yogurt. You just took someone else’s yogurt, and added milk to it, and now you’re calling it yogurt.” “You wanna try some?” I countered. “No,” he said.
It then dawned on me that he didn’t trust the yogurt I’d made. “It’s good!” I insisted. I got the jar from the fridge. “Look! It looks just like yogurt! From the store! Except it’s homemade!” He glanced at it dismissively. I put the jar back in the fridge, saying, “I can’t believe you ingrates. I make yogurt and none of you will eat it.”
“Have you eaten any of it?” my husband asked.

“Yes!” I said. “I had a spoonful of it.”

“Well, let’s wait and see what happens,” he said.

Basically, he’s positive that I’m going to give everyone food poisoning with the yogurt. So my yogurt victory may be a total loss on the domestic front. I had not planned to put this post into the Museum of Tsuris, but after this update, I feel I have no choice. It’s not that the yogurt has given me any tsuris, mind you, but my husband sure has. Ingrate.

Heavy cream is useful.

Of course I did not grow up in a household where heavy cream was a kitchen staple, because no one cooked seriously in our household, and on the rare occasions we needed whipped cream, we purchased a can of the totally awesome Reddi-Wip, which was not only good to eat but crazy fun to dispense. Now that I am who I am, however, there are often occasions when I need heavy cream for cooking, and so I’d say 50% of the time, if you open our fridge, you’ll find a carton of heavy cream around.

I have very strong feelings about what brands of heavy cream are acceptable. I am very loyal to Farmer’s Cow heavy cream, which I feel is both high quality and affordable. Anything with weird gums added to it is not acceptable, but I admit that we wind up with it in the house a fair amount because that’s what’s easiest to find. Stuff from Smyth’s Trinity Farm or Arethusa Dairy Farm is also wonderful, but it’s a lot more expensive. Basically, I raise or lower my standards depending on what I’m planning to use the cream in, and I can live with that. Right now we’ve got a carton of the medium-undistinguished-but-okay Guida heavy cream. I bought it to make something very specific a few days ago, and I made it, but now I can’t recall what it was. Oh: whipped cream, to go with strawberry shortcake.

I only whipped up about 3/4 of a cup of the cream that night, so right now we’ve got a fair amount of it in the fridge waiting to be used up. If I haven’t used it in a day or so, I will pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze it, because I’ve learned that adding a cube or two of cream to a number of things is a very good idea (more on that later, some day), but in the meantime, last night I had a small heavy cream epiphany.

I had had a very complicated day. Usually when this happens I try very hard to ensure that even if the day is very busy, by four o’clock or five o’clock — 6 p.m. at the latest — I am at home and organizing dinner. That did not happen yesterday. What did happen was that in the one hour and fifteen minutes when I was home, mid-day, I had the presence of mind to assemble and bake a meatloaf and wash a lot of Romaine lettuce and arugula, so that when my daughter and husband and I all got home between 6.30 and 7 o’clock, it wouldn’t be too difficult to assemble dinner. All we’d have to do is reheat the meatloaf — if we felt like it — and assemble a salad. (Yes, I forgot about the starch aspect of the meal. More on that momentarily.)

So at 6.30 my daughter and I were on a bus headed home after a long afternoon downtown and I was texting my husband saying “we’re on the bus, we’ll be home soon” and he wrote back to ask if he should heat up the meatloaf; he’d just gotten home. I said Sure, and added, “I just realized I forgot to prep a starch. You could put on a pot of rice maybe.” When we got home, fifteen minutes later, the meatloaf was heating gently in the oven and a pot of instant mashed potatoes was being assembled on the stovetop: all was well. Except I’d also forgotten about making salad dressing.

We’ve been eating a lot of salads lately, which is most unlike me. I generally take a hard stance against salads: I think they’re a waste of time. Rabbit food. I don’t care. But because my daughter turns out to love lettuces of all types, so long as they’re not too bitter, I’ve gotten in the habit of serving them. Usually I just throw on some oil and vinegar and call it a day, but sometimes I get a little more ambitious. Last night, my interest was not in being ambitious, but avoiding the same old oil and vinegar thing again. I opened the fridge to see what I might have that would make a nice salad dressing and I saw the heavy cream and I thought, “Well, I could make some kind of creamy salad dressing for a change?”

I took a bowl and poured in maybe a quarter cup of cream, and then I began to whip it. When it started to thicken, I put in a teaspoon of garlic powder, a little cayenne, some salt, and a splash of tomato vinegar, and I kept whipping. In about 30 seconds we had a thick but pourable salad dressing that was really, really delicious, strong enough to stand up to the arugula I’d snuck into the salad bowl (my daughter carefully picked it out and gave it to her father). It was so delicious that after the salad was gone, my husband folded some of the dressing into his mashed potatoes. It took almost no effort to make this salad dressing and it tasted like it required planning and real expertise: in other words, this was a very good trick to have figured out. I don’t know what took me so long. It’s obviously totally 101, but I guess sometimes it’s the really obvious stuff that slips by us.

Another Perfect Summer Dinner, Discovered

Recently I had a problem, which was that I had to cook dinner for the three of us and I really didn’t feel like it and, what’s more, I was determined to not go to the store to buy ingredients. In other words, whatever I came up with, it had to be done with whatever I might have in the house. Around mid-day I realized that if I was willing to put a little bit of effort into it, I did, in fact, have everything needed to make a tomato pie, which is a lovely summer meal.

So I resigned myself to the idea that, come five o’clock, I’d be assembling biscuit dough and then spending fifteen minutes assembling the pie and then I’d be baking it.

The one aspect of this that I was looking forward to was, I’d had the idea that instead of using the cheeses I usually put into tomato pie, I’d use the log of honey goat cheese that someone gave me a couple weeks ago. (It was part of a gift basket I received.) It seemed to me that if I made a pie with that cheese and thin slices of tomato and some red onion, it could be really very good.

But, while poking around online to see if anyone else had ever done something similar, I stumbled on a website that talked about a variant of what I had in mind, and it sounded so good, I thought, “Screw tomato pie.” The site I was on, Culinary Covers, listed this as a Tomato Scallion Shortcake, and apparently it’s really a Smitten Kitchen recipe. I’ve read the Smitten Kitchen cookbook and genuinely don’t remember this — though it is the lovely item shown on the cover of the book —  but it doesn’t matter. The basic idea was that you’d re-configure a shortcake so that instead of being a sweet dessert, it became a savory dish. This was so brilliant I was pissed at myself for not having thought of it (or noticed it as a good idea) years ago. I glanced at the Culinary Covers write up of the recipe. It looked to be pretty much the biscuit recipe I generally use, so once I had that taken care of, the rest of this was a snap.

This savory shortcake was so good my husband and I were actually surprised. Our first bites were a little skeptical, but by the end we were literally looking at the bowl that held the whipped “cream,” wishing there was more. The last time we had a home-cooking experience like this was the first time we made Cincinnati chili. “Weird,” we both said, at first bite. “I need MORE,” quickly followed. And Cincinnati chili has been a standard of ours ever since. I predict the same will happen with the savory shortcakes.

They’re not enough to serve on their own for dinner, sadly. So on the side, I served succotash (frozen corn, a little chopped onion, garlic, and fresh okra, cooked with a little hot sauce and some heavy cream; no one liked it but me, but that is totally okay, because I loved it), and a green salad (lettuce, pea shoots, vinaigrette, beloved by my family, primarily because it wasn’t succotash).

But let’s focus on the important thing here, which is those savory tomato biscuit things. Having done this once, I now know precisely how to do it even better the next time I do it, and there will be a next time.

The Important Part:

Biscuits with Sweet Whipped Goat Cheese, Tomato, and Red Onion

Start by doing two things:

1. Take a 4 oz. log of goat cheese out of the fridge. I used a honey goat cheese, but you could use a plain goat cheese and add your own honey to taste. The cheese needs time out of the fridge to soften. It’ll be perfect by the time you’re putting the biscuits in the oven.

2. Assemble biscuit dough. I usually like to make a very basic biscuit dough, because it’s easier than fiddling with bells and whistles. If you like bells and whistles, go for it. But the down and dirty basic biscuit means, you get a large bowl and blend in it, with a fork, about two cups of flour, 2-3 tablespoons baking powder, and about 3/4 tsp. salt. Before you get your hands dirty, and you will, pour into a measuring cup about 1 cup of milk. Clear a workspace where you can cut out biscuits; get a biscuit cutter out, and a rolling pin, and set them aside. Cut 5 tbs. of cold butter into smallish pieces and then drop them into the mixing bowl and with your fingers rub the butter into the flour mixture until it feels, as everyone always says, “like coarse meal.” You don’t want any large lumps of butter remaining. If it takes you a while to achieve this, then let the flour and butter rest in the fridge for a few minutes before proceeding. You want that stuff to be nice and cold before you proceed.

When you are assured that the flour/butter combination is not melty at all, then stir in the milk with a wooden spoon. Combine these ingredients and then when it’s pretty much a cohesive mound of dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured countertop. Give it a few kneads — not many — to make sure that there are no hidden pockets of dry flour in there, then roll out the biscuits and bake them in a 425° oven for about 13 minutes. Maybe you want your biscuit tops a little more golden, in which case, leave them in longer. I sprinkled the tops of these biscuits with parmesan cheese last night, which was great, but I now realize I should have brushed the biscuits with an egg wash first, and next time I hope to remember to do that.

The next thing you do, which is so easy it’s stupid, is you make the whipped goat cheese “topping.” You could do this by hand but I used my stand mixer because I could and because I knew I had to work on two other side dishes while the topping was coming together. Pour about 1/4 cup of heavy whipping cream into the stand mixer, put on the whisk attachment, and make whipped cream. When it’s starting to form stiff peaks, add the softened goat cheese, and let it whip. If it seems a little dense to you, you can pour in some more cream. I suppose the consistency of the finished product is a matter of taste. I really enjoyed the idea of eating something that looked like regular whipped cream but had a trick up its sleeve, so I wanted it to be really fluffy and floppy, and I added a little cream as I went along — but start with 1/4 cup, not too much. I mean, you can always add more cream, but you can’t take it away.

Once that’s taken care of, get a spatula and transfer the whipped cheese into an attractive small serving bowl.

Slice, as thinly as you can, some really nice tomatoes and some red onion. “Paper thin” wouldn’t be out of line here.

When the biscuits are cooked to how you like them — they should be nice and tall, easily split — you make little sandwiches out of them. You can do closed or open faced, as you wish. Think of it as a clotted cream and strawberries or strawberry shortcake situation. What we did was, we slathered the whipped cheese onto the biscuits and then draped the sliced vegetables on top of them and then we gobbled it all up. The honeyed cheese and the red onion were fabulous together. If you made lots and lots of these biscuits, little bitty ones, you could serve them as an hors d’oeuvre at a nice dinner or at a cocktail party. But I think we’d rather have large biscuits and just turn into total hozzers and eat vast quantities of them all by ourselves. We’ll be doing this come Shabbat this week. If I can serve nachos at Shabbat — Shabachos, we call them — then I can damned well serve savory shortcakes. Amen.

Mayonnaise: A Science Project. You know, for kids

Recently my family had the kind of day (and the kind of evening) where the only sane thing to do come dinnertime was have us all assemble sandwiches. The schedule had been bonkers all day long and there was no chance of my being able to cook something decent; it made loads of sense to just buy some cold cuts and rolls and a couple bags of potato chips and pretend that it was the kind of hot summer night when no one even pretends that a hot meal is a good idea. Never mind that in fact it was a cool 40 degree evening and that none of us were feeling at all summery. Some nights, you just say “uncle.”

The three of us built our sandwiches, and as we sat down at the table a large-scale discussion commenced on the virtues of mayonnaise. Now, many people fear mayonnaise. Some fear it for health-related reasons and some have what I guess we’d call “sensory issues” about it — they don’t like any food that’s white, or they find it slimy, or something — I don’t know what the problem is, I just know that there are a lot of people out there who won’t eat mayonnaise. And then on the other side of things, there’s a whole other crowd that regards mayonnaise as an essential food group unto itself. In other words, people have strong feelings about mayonnaise. My husband and I are vehemently pro-mayonnaise and I have been known to make it from scratch once in a blue moon. Our daughter, when smaller, accepted mayonnaise happily as the thing that bound her tuna salad together, but if you asked her if she wanted mayonnaise on, say, her turkey sandwich, she would protest loudly and declaim that mayonnaise was bad. In other words, she wasn’t quite grasping the situation, when it came to mayonnaise. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, she’s come around, and making good sandwiches for her is a lot easier now.

I voiced my relief that my daughter is no longer mayonnaise-phobic, and mused, “It’s so depressing when people make sandwiches and skimp on the mayonnaise. It makes for a very sad and uninspiring sandwich.” My husband agreed. Our daughter asked, “Can you make mayonnaise? I mean, can you make it at home?” My husband looked at me, and I looked at him and then at my daughter, and I said, “Kid, you were born into the right household.” I realized it had been quite a long time since I’d last made mayonnaise, if she was asking me this question, and said that over the weekend, I’d show her how to make mayonnaise.
So the weekend came, and I called the girl to the kitchen and showed her what we were going to do. “It is not hard to make mayonnaise,” I said, “but there are a few things you have to get absolutely right before you start, or it will not work at all.”

“Ok,” she said. I showed her what we needed. “We’ve got some olive oil, some vegetable oil, two eggs at room temperature, vinegar, a little bit of salt, and some mustard.”

“That isn’t a lot of food,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said, “but you’ll see what happens.”

First I separated the eggs, explaining that if the eggs were cold, the mayonnaise would not happen. They have to be at room temperature. If you’ve not planned ahead and taken the eggs from the fridge an hour in advance, you can run them under hot tap water to get them ready. But it’s obviously easier to just let them sit on the counter a while. The whites were set aside in a little plastic tub; we wouldn’t need them. The yolks went into a large steel mixing bowl. I got out a big whisk and said, “Ok, I want you to whisk these together.” She held the bowl steady with one hand and began to awkwardly whisk the yolks. I said, “Now I’m going to add some stuff. You keep whisking.” I measured a couple of teaspoons of white vinegar into the bowl, and added a pinch of salt and a small dab of Colman’s prepared mustard (because I’m out of dry mustard). “Keep whisking,” I said. She kept whisking. “My hand’s getting tired,” she complained. I said, “Ok, let me take over,” and I finished the first round of whisking. “See how it’s all one nice thick yellow thing?” I said. She nodded. “Ok, so now we take some oil and we pour a tiny, thin stream of it in. I want you to whisk while I do this.” I took the bottle of olive oil and began to pour in a very, very thin trickle of oil while my daughter whisked like crazy. My husband ambled into the kitchen. “You’re not doing this in the blender or something?” he asked. “No,” I said, “because I want her to really be able to see what’s happening. This is Science!” “True,” he said, and ambled out of the room.

“What’s science about this?” asked our daughter.

“Well, what we’re doing is called making an emulsion,” I said. “That’s when you take two things that wouldn’t normally combine together, and you get them to become one new thing. We’re taking oil and eggs — the eggs are mostly water — and we’re making it so that they will combine into one new thing.”

As I said this, I was pouring in more oil (having switched to vegetable oil after a while), and I’d taken over the whisking. About three minutes later, we had a big bowl of mayonnaise. How did this happen? Naturally. The action of whisking the oil and the yolks forced the two to form an emulsion, i.e., mayonnaise. Homemade mayonnaise in my experience is not the creamy white color that Hellman’s is — it’s yellower, and definitely has a more pronounced taste — so I don’t regard it as interchangeable with Hellman’s. But it is good stuff, no question. My daughter was impressed. “Now what do we do with it?” she asked. “Well, you can taste it with a spoon,” I said. She did, and was even more impressed. “But what are we going to do with all of this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. The thing about homemade mayonnaise is, it doesn’t keep very well: you have to use it up fast. Fortunately, my husband had a plan: we would be making steak frites for dinner. More accurately, I would cook steak and he would cook the frites. Dinner at home was luxurious. It turns out, the road from a turkey and cheese sandwich and potato chips to steak frites is very short indeed.

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