January 30, 2011

letting bacteria take over: or, making yogurt

This piece about homemade yogurt by Francis Lam made me think seriously about whether I should be making my own yogurt. I do derive a silly amount of pleasure from making foods -- often, that I could easily buy -- from scratch. But yogurt? I never considered it, primarily because the list of foods I prefer to make from scratch is already out of control. On the other hand, Francis made homemade yogurt sound infinitely better than the store bought variety, plus I can't resist fun food projects. Some people love shopping, some people love knitting, some people love building furniture -- I love devoting afternoons to simmering chicken pho and rolling out tortillas. It's a bonus if they turn out better than anything I could buy, and at a fraction of the cost.

Besides, my sweet parents recently gave me a yogurt maker. Thank you, parents! (Note: A yogurt maker isn't essential by any means; Francis Lam says he mixes up his cultures in a Pyrex bowl and lets it hang out in a warm spot all night, which is also how I make creme fraiche. Low-tech and cheap! And Andrea Nguyen's technique for Vietnamese-style yogurt calls for a warm water bath. But I have a yogurt maker, so I used that.)

a new yogurt maker, thank you parents

Humankind has been making yogurt forever, and it is a neat concept: you extend the life of milk by heating it, adding cultures and allowing bacteria to colonize it. The general idea is to pour your milk into a saucepan and heat, stirring constantly, to around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it hits 180, you let it cool to 110-120 degrees. When the milk is ready for the culture, it's time to stir in 1 tablespoon active-culture yogurt per pint of milk and mix until smooth. (My yogurt maker came with packets of dried yogurt starter, and it says to stir in 10 grams of dried yogurt starter per liter of milk, so apparently that's an option if you prefer not to buy yogurt to make yogurt.)

Now all you have to do is wait. I've learned that the longer it sits, the tarter and firmer your yogurt becomes. After 3 hours, mine tasted like thickened milk; after 5 hours, it had developed a hint of tartness that tasted good to me, so I set it in the fridge to chill overnight.


I used high-quality, organic whole milk for my first batch and thought it was excellent plain, but I couldn't resist stirring in a spoonful of Mark's mom's delicious blackberry jam. Either way, the texture was lovely -- creamy, custardy, drizzle-able -- and the flavor was just to my taste, creamy and slightly tart. And when I asked Mark if he thought this could replace his favorite yogurt, he said yes, if only the texture were thicker. So I set a cup of yogurt in a fine mesh strainer above a bowl; after a few hours in the fridge, some of the whey had seeped out and I was left with something closer to Greek-style yogurt. 

 So, I guess it's official: I'm adding yogurt to my list of foods I prefer making myself. Other things I like to do with yogurt, besides eating it plain: Stirring in some sugar and running it through the ice cream maker for the best frozen yogurt you can imagine. Mixing in chopped garlic, minced herbs and salt to make a sauce that is perfect for drizzling on crispy fish, slathering on lamb meatballs, or topping roasted cauliflower. Making a quick raita with grated cucumber, chopped cilantro and toasted cumin seeds to accompany basmati rice and a spicy lentil dal. Using it instead of mayo on an avocado sandwich or in dips. Mixing into all kinds of batters, from biscuits to cake to pancakes. All I have to do is remember to keep a few spoonfuls to make the next batch. 

January 19, 2011

Tangerine-Campari granita (and my apologies)

It is mid-January, only you'd never know it from the weather these last 2 weeks. I had no idea January would be so nice to us this year. Thank you, January! But what to do when it is warm, sunny and lunchtime -- and all you have in the refrigerator is, like, leftover lentil soup, bunches of kale and a few endives? Nothing, except put Operation Take Advantage of Warm, Sunny Days in full effect. The answer, for me, has been citrus fruit. I generally eat citrus fruit only in winter, but for whatever reason I associate it with warm weather too: you know, summer lemonade, orange popsicles, Campari soda with a twist. So I started this warm weather shebang off with Moroccan style preserved lemons (super easy; I used Paula Wolfert's recipe) ... which actually wasn't so immediately satisfying, since they have to brine for 30 days.

Next, I sectioned a mountain of grapefruit and ate that after lunch. I felt a little better, because grapefruit is refreshing in a way that kale could never be. I love kale, but seriously, it's not refreshing. Even if you slick it in olive oil and lemon juice and serve it in your brightest yellow bowl and call it a raw kale salad ... it is still kale, and it is still not refreshing.

 Then, on Sunday afternoon I decided to go the drink route with an old-fashioned favorite, an Americano cocktail -- equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth over ice, topped off with sparkling water and garnished with orange wedges -- which I sipped (ok, drank) (ok, gulped) after finishing my big weekend project. No, not talking on the phone for 2 hours (hi Julia!): sanding and repainting our dressers. Now, now, we were on the right track.

Americano cocktail

And then I had my best idea yet. Confronted with a big pile of tangerines and an almost-hot afternoon, I got to juicing a dozen or so small tangerines, plus a couple of sweet limes I found at the market (they taste exactly how you'd think). Inspired by my Americano, I stirred in a few tablespoons of Campari, along with a scant amount of simple syrup and some zest. After a deep chill, I used my fork to fluff up the now-frozen mixture and then I ate it outside. The sun was hot and I was eating snow. Sweet, bitter, alcoholic, utterly delicious snow. 


Tangerine-Campari granita 

I know, it is crazy to give a recipe for a granita in the dead of winter. I don't blame you if you sprint away to turn off the heat and dig into some boeuf bourguignon. But if you can stand to eat an icy dessert while it is icy outside, this is an excellent way to take advantage of great citrus fruit. Plus, it's a really lovely palate cleanser.

This is more of a technique than a recipe, really. No tangerines? Use blood oranges, navel oranges, or grapefruit, or clementines, or lemons, or a combination of whatever you have on hand. No Campari? Try Grand Marnier or vodka. Adding alcohol keeps the granita from completely freezing, which helps you get a snow-like slush rather than hard, sharp ice. But if you prefer not to use alcohol, or if you want to be sure to get that snowy texture, you can stir the granita mixture every 30-40 minutes while it chills in the freezer.

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups of citrus juice
2-6 tablespoons Campari or other liqueur such as Grand Marnier or vodka (see notes about substitutions above)
1-2 teaspoons of grated zest

Heat the water and the sugar in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool.

Zest some of your fruit, enough to get 1-2 teaspoons. Juice enough fruit to get around 2 cups of liquid. After straining the juice to get rid of pulp and seeds, pour it into a metal or plastic pan (I used a 9x9 cake pan). The juice should be no deeper than an inch or so so that the granita freezes quickly and breaks up easily.

Add the zest and 2 tablespoons each of the Campari and the simple syrup to your pan. Stir and have a taste; depending on how sweet your fruit is, you may need as little as 2 tablespoons and up to 6 tablespoons of syrup. (You'll probably have some leftover syrup; save this in a covered jar in the refrigerator for lemonade, iced tea, cocktails, etc.) As for the booze, 2 tablespoons of Campari is the minimum; feel free to add more. I ended up using 5 tablespoons of Campari and 4 tablespoons of sugar, which yielded a subtly sweet and bitter mix. 

Freeze at least 4 hours, or overnight. (See note above: if you feel like fussing, whisk/stir the granita mixture every 30-40 minutes for up to 4 hours. I did not do this.) 2 hours before serving, remove the granita from the freezer and use a fork to break up the ice crystals. Return to the freezer and leave to chill for at least another 2 hours.

Serve by raking the crystals again and then spooning into chilled glasses/bowls.


January 13, 2011

So juicy: Edwardian drama and sloe gin

So, I am hooked on the miniseries Downton Abbey. A wealthy earl and his American wife fret over the inheritance of the estate, a prickly dowager (played by the excellent Maggie Smith) schemes to challenge legal documents and marry off her grand-daughter to a commoner, modern women question patriarchy, the footman engages in scandalous dalliances with the eldest daughter's visiting suitors, and love and treachery ensue among the help. Meanwhile, the manor is being wired for electricity. Oh, and social change threatens to overthrow their entire way of life. I'm not exactly a raging Anglophile but Downton Abbey hits that sweet spot of totally enjoyable, well-done fluff.

And for someone who is obsessed with food, the scenes set in the kitchen and at the dining table are amazing. Really! As the Crawley household finds out about the Titanic disaster, you see the help eating porridge while the cook sends a silver platter of steaming kedgeree to the Lord's breakfast table. After a funeral, the footmen serve gorgeous upright molds of bright green asparagus, meat pie, apple tart, sumptuous whole chickens served with gravy, and cakes in shades of pink, yellow, white and red. Before dinner, the head butler carefully and slowly strains a bottle of old Port into a crystal decanter. The middle-class heir to Downton Abbey pours his own tea while his butler looks on helplessly and the dowager countess frowns disapprovingly. I mean. It could not be better.

Are you thinking about how you can make your life more Downton Abbey-esque? Me too. To this end, I've been mixing drinks with my favorite English spirit in our liquor cabinet: English sloe gin. In case you aren't familiar with sloe gin, it is gin infused with the astringent, bitter berries of a blackthorn bush. In England, sloe gin was traditionally made at home by steeping sloe berries, gin, spices, and sugar in wide-necked jars; they drank it on cold nights or carried it in flasks to take on hunts. Meanwhile, American liquor makers co-opted the name and slapped it on an artificial, syrupy sweet alcohol that bartenders used to make embarrassing Jersey Shore-style drinks like Alabama Slammers and Sloe Screwdrivers. Until very recently, true sloe gin wasn't available in the U.S., but luckily for us Plymouth makes a good one now.

On its own, Plymouth sloe gin tastes of sour cherry and cranberry with a very subtle sweetness. It can be drunk straight, but my favorite way involves shaking it with lemon juice, angostura bitters and ice. It is tart, bright stuff and it slips down embarrassingly easily. Fortunately for lightweights like myself, sloe gin is more of a refresher than a vehicle for alcohol; it has a fairly low alcohol content, in other words (52 proof). But it is delicious stuff, nice enough that the single malt drinker in my life likes it too. In case you are curious, though, the odds of Mark sitting through 8 hours of an Edwardian drama are slim to none.

Sloe gin fizz
via Jason Wilson's entertaining book Boozehound: On the trail of the Rare, the Obscure and the Overrated in Spirits

This is a summer drink and it is uncouth of me to drink this in the dead of January. I don't care; I love fizzy bitter drinks, and the cold weather makes no difference to me. If you care, straight sloe gin is a classic winter warmer. Alternately, you could mix up a Blackthorn or a Meehoulong.

To make the simple syrup called for in the recipe, heat equal amounts of granulated sugar and water in a saucepan over low heat (say, 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar). When the sugar has dissolved, it is ready. Store in a tightly covered jar in the refrigerator for a month or so.

2 ounces true sloe gin, such as Plymouth or the Bitter Truth
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon simple syrup
sparkling water
orange slice, for garnish

Fill a shaker with ice, and add the sloe gin, lemon juice and simple syrup. Shake well, then strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with sparkling water and garnish with the orange slice.

Variation: For a less sweet drink, substitute 2 dashes of Angostura bitters for the simple syrup.

January 6, 2011

a good appetite for red lentil soup

I have cooked many of New York Times columnist Melissa Clark's recipes, from wild salmon croquettes to baked beans to roasted broccoli (boy, do I love roasted broccoli) to olive-oil granola to sour cherry pie. I'm a fan of this lady. Her food tends to be simple, yet sophisticated, without requiring too much fuss. Plus, her recipes have always worked for me. Me! Someone who is constitutionally incapable of following a recipe as written.

When my thoughtful sister gave me Clark's newest cookbook In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, I spent a good hour on Christmas day reading her stories and making mental notes about recipes to try. She has an entire chapter called Things With Cheese, full of snacky dishes that would work perfectly for dinner parties (phyllo and feta cheese torte, port glazed Stilton with homemade oat biscuits) or a weeknight when you want something good but fast (macaroni/peas/bacon/creme fraiche/cheese, yes please.) I want to make nearly everything in the chapter called The Farmers' Market and me, especially the garlicky sesame-cured broccoli salad, the raw kale salad with chiles and pecorino and the nutty brown butter corn bread. And she has chapter after chapter of all sorts of intriguing preparations for seafood, chicken, pork and beef. Roasted chicken with apples, gin and coriander, you are in my near future.

I started, though, with Clark's recipe for red lentil soup with lemon. Lentils, the cupboard standby that can be transformed into a hearty, virtuous lunch or dinner in no time flat, are always on hand in our house. Puy lentils may be my favorite, but I'm an equal opportunity lentil lover -- especially when the clock struck 8 and I had no plans for dinner. Luckily, her soup is simple and quick to make. Because it's Melissa Clark, she has thought about how to add good flavor: cooking a little tomato paste with the aromatics, adding ground cumin for fragrance and lots of lemon juice for acidity. The end result is a light, zippy, healthy little bowl of soup that I thoroughly enjoyed. I predict this one will be a staple.

Red lentil soup with lemon
adapted from Melissa Clark, In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite
Yields 6 servings

I halve her recipe since there are only two of us, but I double the cumin since I love that flavor. This soup tends toward the bland without a final hit of salt and acidity, so don't leave out the lemon juice and be generous with the salt.

One final tip: I got tired of opening a can of tomato paste to use only 1-2 tablespoons at a time and having it languish in the fridge until a colony of white fuzz took over. It turns out that tomato paste keeps nicely in the freezer, if you divide it into 1 tablespoon servings and wrap it securely in plastic wrap. Or you could buy tubes of tomato paste that people love so much, but I'm my mom's daughter and I prefer not to spend $5 for a teeny tube of imported tomato paste when I can get a nice big can of organic California tomato paste for $2.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground cumin 
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
big pinch cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
1 quart unsalted chicken or vegetable broth
1 cups red lentils
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
juice of half a lemon, plus more to taste
handful of chopped fresh cilantro, mint or parsley
extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

In a soup pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering. Add the onions and garlic and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, cumin, salt, pepper and cayenne and cook for 2 minutes longer. Add the broth, lentils, and carrots. Add 1-2 cups of additional water, depending on how thick you like the soup. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover and cook over medium-low. Simmer until the carrots and lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt. Using an immersion blender, puree half the soup. It should be somewhat chunky, not smooth. Stir in the lemon juice and herbs. Serve, passing olive oil for drizzling and additional cayenne if you like.

January 3, 2011

goodbye 2010, hello 2011

I planned to do whittle down my to-do list over the holidays but, well, those plans were not well-founded; so much fun with family can keep a girl pretty well-occupied! Christmas with my family at my parents' house by the river was a total treat. We didn't venture out of the house much, save mass on Christmas eve and a family outing to see the Coen brothers' latest, but lazing around the house is never as fun or as cozy as it is with my family. We filled our days reading by the fire, playing word games, watching movies in the basement, enjoying the snow, taking walks, laughing at each other trying on hats, celebrating my sister's birthday, and listening to my mom's stories about the old days in Vietnam. (Highlight: "I felt a little stressed and depressed, so I got a rooster for a pet.") And of course we did tremendous amounts of cooking/baking/eating. A small sampling:
  • my mom's best pot ever of bun rieu (Vietnamese crab/shrimp/tomato soup) -- I'm still thinking about how delicious this was;
  • banh bot loc (chewy dumplings filled with savory shrimp);
  • banh xeo (a crispy pancake filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and rolled up in fresh mustard greens and lettuce);  
  • Vietnamese-style beef hot pot;  
  • Peking duck (I made this -- the skin was not correct, but the meat was nice -- and the resulting oven-cleaning resulted in a family evacuation from the living room + donning of face masks to cover the God-awful smell of oven cleaner);
  • benne wafers, which Lynh and I had fun making despite really not liking the outcome; 
  • cinnamon brioche rolls, Shirley Corriher's biscuits, sweet potato rolls, sandwich bread
  • Greek yogurt panna cotta, sour cherry pie and spiced pumpkin pie
  • a huge batch of beef empanadas, encased in pie dough and baked; and
  • a Mexican-style brunch, with my brother's excellent tomatillo-chipotle salsa and tomatillo salsa, bacon, yummy refried black beans and a mess of homemade tortillas. 
It was wonderful to be with my family. I took lots of pictures; here is one of my favorites, of my parents:

cute mom and dad!

Also, my brother had the brilliant idea to recreate a few old family photos. It was a lot of fun, though they would have turned out better if we had some 80's-style sweatsuits, not to mention bad bangs. The results:

old photo recreation


more old photo recreation

Our lucky stars were very kind to us this past year. Every passing day of health and happiness for our families, friends and ourselves is a special gift (I think especially of my dad, who remains cancer free and healthy after surgery two years ago -- fingers crossed!) and everything else -- spending time with our wonderful families and friends, planning fun travels and making a new home in the Bay Area -- is simply icing on the cake. We hope that 2011 will be as memorable and meaningful as 2010. Happy new year to you and yours; may you all be happy, healthy and well-fed in 2011!