Thursday, May 31, 2012

So Long, Sylvester

I bring bad tidings: my Toyota Echo, Sylvester, my bosom companion for the past seven years, Gas Mileage Champ and He Of The Surprisingly Spacious Trunk For Such A Tiny Car, is no more.

Monday night, I hit a guard rail on I-70 eastbound. My insurance has decided that it is not economical to fix him, so Sylvester is now toast. Alas.

I just felt I couldn't let him pass out of my life without some sort of memorial.

I'll miss my little clown car with the fabulous gas mileage; lack of cruise control, tape deck/CD player/AUX port, power windows and locks; and the check engine light that wouldn't turn off.

He was a trooper.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Kitchen Experiment #176: Homemade Yogurt

Continuing my string of dairy-product-making-attempts (some more successful than others, I must say...mozzarella continues to elude me), I tried my hand at yogurt recently.

The process is fairly simple... heat a quart of milk to 185 degrees, whisk in yogurt starter (or yogurt with live cultures, which is what I used), pour it all in a quart jar, and then do your best to keep your yogurt-to-be around 110 degrees for the next six to twelve hours, which is more difficult than one might think. In my case, I filled two more quart jars with boiling water, swaddled all of them in a sweater, stuffed them in the non-working oven in my camper, then continued to anxiously check on it every few hours like a new mother looking in at her sleeping infant.

For a first yogurt, I don't think it was too shabby. It has a pleasantly tangy flavor, which I prefer. It is a little thin for my liking - closer to a kefir consistency than yogurt, really - but absolutely fine mixed with granola, which is how I always eat it.

And why is that, anyways? I think my yogurt starter was a little too old, for one thing. The fresher the yogurt, the better, where live cultures are concerned. Also, Clare told me that she lets the milk cool a bit before adding the starter, since the high heat can kill the cultures. And next time, I'll probably use a strainer to catch all the little bits of scorched milk that settled to the bottom of the yogurt, because that's just kind of gross.

I'm a little stumped about what to do about the skin that develops on top of milk when you heat it, though. Do I just need to stand there, whisking maniacally until it's ready to pour? I'd really rather not, if there are other options. Any ideas out there?

Monday, May 21, 2012

In Which I Drink Raw Milk

As some of you may have gathered from previous posts, I'm pretty fascinated with the saga of raw milk. Who would think that a mundane substance like milk could be so polarizing?

I was feeling rather investigative last week, so I went up to visit The Family Cow, one of the biggest raw milk-producing dairies in Pennsylvania, if not the entire East Coast. I was shown around for a couple hours, had my innumerable questions answered with unending patience, and when I left, it was with half a gallon of raw milk clutched in my sweaty palm.*

I was curious, I must admit. I'd never had raw milk before, and health claims aside, I wanted to see if there was any justification for the assertion that raw milk just tastes better than its pasteurized counterpart.

The taste test was conducted in my tiny kitchen. In a very professional manner, I poured two jelly jars full of milk: The Family Cow's raw whole milk in one, Clear Spring Creamery's un-raw whole milk in the other.

The two milks both looked the same. They both had cream at the top of the cartons (being unhomogenized, that tends to happen), and both had the yellow tint of grass-fed dairy products. No major differences there.

In the taste department, however, I definitely preferred Clear Spring Creamery's product. Maybe I'm just biased, since I work there and all, but when I tried the raw milk, I detected a faint "barnyard" taste.** According to Mark, this might be due to the cows' diet - he said that some cows can have a taste to their milk that he described as "silage." If that is the case, then milk purchased later in the year might be missing that taste.

The question of raw versus pasteurized aside, some of the reasons a small, raw milk, grass-fed dairy would be better tasting than Piggly Wiggly's are pretty obvious. First, the milk is fresh - likely from the last week - instead of weeks if not months old. Second, the milk is from grass-fed cows, which gives the milk much more flavor, and can in fact have flavors specific to what the cows eat. Third, many small, organic dairies go for heritage breeds like Jersey cows, which have richer milk due to the higher butterfat content. Fourth, the milk is unhomogenized, which affects not only its taste but its digestibility. And last, you're dealing with the milk of a small herd of - depending on the farm - 50 to 300 cows, as opposed to the milk of thousands of cows being mixed together, which is what conventional dairies do.

To be fair, I was definitely comparing two pretty delicious products as it was. It might be an interesting future experiment to do a blind taste test between raw milk, pasteurized milk from a small organic dairy like Clear Spring Creamery, mass-produced organic milk from a grocery store (like Horizon), and a conventional grocery store brand milk. If I were to compare regular milk from a grocery store with raw milk from a (relatively) small dairy like The Family Cow, I have no doubt which I would prefer.

*I was feeling pretty confident about The Family Cow's cleanliness, given that I'd just been over practically every inch of their operation and asked plenty of detailed (and perhaps somewhat impertinent) questions.
**This reminded me of my friend Bin's assertion that colostrum***, when he tasted it, was like drinking "hot hay".
***Colostrum is the rich milk that cows produce for the first several days after calving, and which is considered vital for a calf's immune system and overall health.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cows, Cows, Cows

I feel as though this blog has been deficient in pictures of cows recently. Enjoy.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Butter Is Better

I am happy to report my first (successful) attempt at making a dairy product in my tiny own kitchen!

Blog, allow me to introduce you to Butter.

If you're anything like me at all, butter is absolutely indispensable. I saute asparagus, I bake cakes, I create tart crust, I smear pieces of baguette.

And, fabulously, butter has to be one of the easiest things to make ever. Observe:

Take one cup of cream and let it sit out until it reaches 50 degrees F. At the same time, put a clean quart jar in the fridge.

Once the cream has reached the desired temperature, pour it into the quart jar and screw on the lid tightly. Then start shaking the dickens out of it.

The cream will start out like cream, then frothy. After a few minutes, without any warning, it will have a whipped consistency. Do not be alarmed. And do not stop shaking.

After another few minutes, again with no warning whatsoever, the contents of the jar will turn from whipped cream into a large yellow lump and some milky liquid. Ta-da! You have made butter. This entire process should take somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes.

Pour off the buttermilk and store in the fridge for a refreshing pre-bedtime drink. 
Pour cold water over the butter and shake to rinse, then pour off. Do this three or four times, until the water runs clear.
Knead the butter with your hands (or with a pair of spoons, if you're fastidious) to remove any remaining liquid. This is important, since leaving the extra liquid can make your butter spoil. Stir in 1/4 tsp. of kosher salt, if so desired.

Spread on a piece of bread and enjoy.

Note: Do not be alarmed by the taxi cab shade of yellow that is my butter. It is representative of butterfat from grass-fed cows, and is caused by high levels of Vitamin A and beta-carotene - the same reasons that eggs from free-range chickens have similarly, shockingly colored yolks.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The One About Strawberries

There's a cycle to eating seasonally.

Step one: Wait in restless anticipation for <insert food here> to be available.

Step two: When <insert food here> finally becomes available, gorge yourself until you can't bear to look at it anymore.

Step three: Wait another eight or nine or ten months until <insert food here> finally comes around again.

Of course, there is an alternative extra step - Put up <insert food here> so that you can continue to enjoy it when it is no longer in season.

For me, this food is currently strawberries.

What is it about fresh strawberries? I don't even bother buying the grocery store versions anymore. Strawberries at the store aren't so delicate that they bruise their tender little bodies merely sitting on top of one another in a container. Strawberries at the store don't seduce you with aromas that entice you like a mauve-colored, come-hither, beckoning hand from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, stroking you under your nose as you pass by. Let's face it - strawberries at the store suck.

The strawberry cycle started two weeks ago, when a table of the delectable fruit lured me into another farm's tent at the Falls Church farmers market. I got a quart, and spent the rest of market surreptitiously opening the cooler where I had stashed it, the better to enjoy its scent as it billowed out of solitary cooler confinement. I spent the following week enjoying strawberries on my oatmeal, my granola, and - most memorably - eaten for dessert in a pool of our own yellow-tinted cream.

So when, at Arlington's farmers market this past Saturday, our neighbors started putting out basket after basket of the little red fruit, I was overcome, and purchased half a flat. I used some of it to make strawberry compote to top my traditional boyfriend-is-visiting breakfast, the German Pancake, and I reserved a bit more so I could luxuriate in strawberries and cream later that week, but the bulk of it ended up in little quilted 8-oz jars.

Preserves - the perfect way to make sure that I can get my strawberry fix any time, any place. And they're so easy to make that it's actually a little disturbing - equal weights strawberries and sugar, cut up and mixed with the juice of a lemon, and left alone overnight, then heated up in two-cup increments and ladled into the appropriate sterilized jars and boiled for ten minutes, leaving me with five jewel-bright additions to my tiny kitchen.

But, naturally, I dropped my first piece of strawberry preserve-bedecked toast, sticky side down, in the garage the next morning after only eating two bites.