Thursday, February 24, 2011

Umpfy Cabbage

Fergus Henderson describes the aroma of fermenting cabbage with an adjective which I think he made up - umpfy.  I can think of no better word to describe it, though I am unsure how exactly to define it.  Fermented cabbage may rouse memories of bitter, stringy sauerkraut, slopped atop a hot dog, a bit too sour, and kind of unpleasant.  

Please banish that image from your mind.  Cabbage that you ferment yourself is a heady, complex, flavorsome brew that is only matched in its taste by the fun of its preparation. So come with me on this odyssey and begin your first true ferment!

Umpfy Cabbage

- 1 head of cabbage (you may be able to find some still at farm markets, it keeps nicely)
- 45g / 3 Tbsp. non-iodized Salt  (Sea, Kosher, Pink Himalayan, Kala Lamak Black, Fleur de Sel Guérande, Hawaiian Alaea, whatever you want)*
- Juniper Berries (optional)
Start with your cabbage, peel some of those outer fronds off, to reveal the tightly-packed interior.  Here is your perfect orb of cabbage; contemplate its similarity to a brain, or whatever else comes to mind for at least five minutes before you hack it up.
Hack it up. A cleaver is helpful for particularly large heads  I find it works best if you quarter with your knife in line with the stem/core so that you have 4 nice pieces with a bit of core in each.  Slice out the core.  I normally advocate for using and eating all parts of whatever you cook, but I have yet to find a good one for a cabbage core.  I guess you could add it to a compost heap so that it doesn't just end up in the trash.

Slice the cabbage in whatever way pleases you most, though the pieces ought not be too large.  Now for some clobbering fun.  Grab a fairly deep ceramic, stainless steel, glass, plastic or other non-reactive** container and do the following

A layer of cabbage about a half-thumb deep, a generous sprinkle of salt, and a few juniper berries.  Now clobber the hell out of the layer.  Punch it, bash it, headbutt it (with hairnet), elbow drop, half-nelson, full nelson, haymaker, suplex, whatever will thoroughly clobber and get the cabbage to give up some of its juice.  Careful of the juniper berries (if you are using them) while punching, they are a bit hard.  Now repeat with a few more layers until all your cabbage is gone. 

Now for fermentation.  You must put something of fairly substantial weight atop your cabbage.  I will leave you to your own creative methods here.  Some starters are: a round plate with some cans or a jug of water on top, a cheese press, a hydraulic press, a small child sitting on a large can, go free with it.  The weight should be pretty heavy, so that all the juice can be fully expressed.  The only problem with the small child might be the next factor - that being that your urn needs to sit and ferment for 2 weeks.  So, place it somewhere that it does not get much cooler than 21º C / 70º F for two weeks***.

You can take a look at the product during this time, it should release a good bit of liquid, and all your cabbage should be covered with it.  If some is not, it will ferment, but in an unpleasant way, so move your cabbage around if some seems not to be covered by the juices. Also, if you see something that looks like scummy foam on the top or sides, skim it off.  The most gorgeous part of it all is that you are doing a wild fermentation, the cabbage juice contains the bacteria that allow it to ferment without too much help from you.  

After 2 weeks, you can either strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer, give the cabbage itself a rinse, and re pack it, or just enjoy it in all its umpfy glory with no washing or straining (not for the faint of heart or tastebud).  Store it in the fridge, where it will continue to improve in flavor for a few weeks. 

*Some people obsess over the perfect salt to cabbage ratio, and you can do so too.  However, I find that somewhere in the 38-45 g / 2-3 Tbsp. per medium head range is fine. If you find things too salty in the end result, reduce it by a bit next time.  Not too much, because salt is an important part of the process.

** The fermentation process can discolor or eat away at certain metals.  Some folks even don't use stainless steel for fear of this happening.  Do what thou wilt.

*** Time is also a disputed bit here.  Some folks run it for 3 days in the warm spot, and a few weeks in a colder one.  I prefer a longer ferment in the warmth, as it really takes on some beautiful flavor from the furious fermentation taking place.  Experiment! 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Food And (as) Medicine

Food is both an interesting and strange thing.  It can bring a family or friends together, it can become a signifier for a greater reality or reminiscence.  It can also be the cause of strife and division, of tense dinner parties with no vegetarian or macrobiotic option.  There is no shortage of books, blogs (of which this is one), and A/V materials espousing some kind of eating principles.  Whereas I believe this to be a somewhat unique feature of affluent societies (or perhaps more accurately, affluent members of such societies) that have the luxury and time to obsessively worry about everything they eat - I don't think it is a fruitless endeavor.  

However, I don't want to get carried away with ultimately tangential material - the focus of this reflection post is on the phrase ", it's good for you."  This is a phrase usually tacked on to some other food-related statement, and followed by descriptive nutritional information: 
"I love grilled chicken breast, plus, it's good for you! It is low in fat."
"I really enjoy blueberries, plus, they are good for you!  They contain lots of antioxidants."
"I like yoghurt, plus it is good for you! It has tons of probiotic bacteria."
 It is as if our every food choice has to be qualified in some way, good or bad:
"I love bacon, but it I know it is so bad for me.  So much sodium and so much fat."
"I am obsessed with cheese, but it is my guilty pleasure.  So much cholesterol."
[Hybrid] "I love chocolate, but know that it has a lot of fat/calories; so I only eat dark chocolate because it has lots of antioxidants." 
Don't treat your food like medicine, and stop feeling as though you ought to qualify your every food choice.  This kind of thinking is the product of a culture obsessed with strange, ascetic diets, nutritional information, and a strange blend of pharmaceutical and folk medicine hidden within our food choices.

Now, what I am advocating here is not an unreflective attitude towards food.  In a world of industrialized food production, we ought to worry about butylated hydroxyanisole, hydroxypropyl methylcelluose, and propylene glycol (antifreeze...whaaaaat?) in our foods, about animals raised in despicable ways, and the myriad of other issues that go along with feeding millions of overhungry consumers.  

What I am advocating is one step beyond this first-level reflection.  If you have gone out of your way to make your own yoghurt with wonderful milk, enjoy its tartness and richness for what they are, not because of beneficial bacteria that will make your bowel evacuation more regular, or because you might lose some weight from eating it regularly.  Maybe both of those things will happen, or maybe they will not.  You can probably find a decent study that would advocate for and against each.  

Food isn't medicine.  If you feel as though you need something medicinal, go pop a few Aspirin, or take a Sudafed - neither of these are classified as 'food.'  If you'd rather go natural take some Echinacea or St. John's Wort, or Kava Kava - you'd never actually eat any of these for dinner (only with dinner in a pill form or something). If you enjoy yoghurt made with 1% milk more than that made with whole (you won't), make it that way because of your enjoyment, not as a dietary justification. 

In final apology, I realize that what I here advocate requires a good bit more expansion, but I won't continue this post a great deal more.  I realize that some people have serious dietary limits imposed by disorders and such, and that some people probably shouldn't eat delicious homemade butter for every meal just because they enjoy it.  So use common sense and moderation (which I think falls under the first level reflectiveness I outline above)!  

Most of all, the intent of this blog is to give you the tools to make some great foundational foods for yourselves, not to give you dietary advice.  So, whereas some of the results of my processes may have some health benefits, etc. I am not going to include them, not because I don't feel qualified, but because I don't think you should have to justify your enjoyment of a crusty piece of homemade bread. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Steal This Culture!

Abbie Hoffman wrote a wonderful work known as "Steal This Book" in 1970, and advocated stealing from the "Pig Empire" (in fact insisting that it was immoral not to).  Although the book is somewhat dated, and mostly reflects the YIP zeitgeist of the time - it informs this post.  

Today is yoghurt*, which is one of my favorite, long-standing processes that I have been cultivating for years.  The reason the post is titled "Steal This Culture" has to do with the fact that although you can insist on being a purist and buying your own fancy starter cultures - you can steal some cultures from the Pig Empire!  

There is a certain company that has some very nice cultures in their yoghurt, their name starts with a "d".  Just grab (or steal if you really want to take from the Pig Empire) a small cup of said plain**, at least 2% fat, yoghurt.  Check out the back and you'll see that you've got some live & active cultures on your hands.  Now you just have to keep them going.

Stolen Yoghurt
- 1 cup of plain, at least 2% fat yoghurt
- 1 quart of Whole Milk (Raw, P & H, whatever is fine)***
- A nice glass jar with a top
Start yourself out with a whiskey sour or Campari on the rocks.  This will steady your nerves, especially if you've never stolen anything before. Also, take your cup of yoghurt out of the fridge now.

 Now, get a saucepan, or pot, or whatever you want to use and dump your milk in.  Start some gentle heat underneath.  Don't be too violent with the heat, you'll have a hellish time scrubbing burnt milk off the bottom of your pot.

Here is where a nice thermometer is very helpful, as you have to bring your milk up to 82º C / 180º F and not much hotter.  Take this advice from me, too hot and you will clobber your milk.  No yoghurt for you.  If you would rather not get a thermometer, a good indicator is when you just begin to see some nice steam coming off the milk, and it looks slightly frothy around the edges (like just before a storm at sea). It should not be boiling.

When your milk arrives at this point, turn off the heat and let it sit and ponder that temperature for about 10 minutes.  You may have to give it some light heat  halfway through so that things don't creep too low.  

After your milk has contemplated its near-boil, cool it as rapidly as possible.  This aspect can be completed in a number of different ways, choose whatever works for you - ice bath, water in a double boiler, vigorous stirring, etc.  No hard and fast rule here, just try and bring it to 38º C / 100º F (it should feel like a warm bath, for those without thermometers) as fast as you can.  

Once it arrives, you are ready to abscond with some cultures. Scoop a nice amount of yoghurt into a small bowl, and add a bit of the now warm milk and stir gently.  As with the yeast, your yoghurt is alive.  When you have been outdoors in the winter months for a long period of time, your extremities often grow very cold.  Upon entering your home again, you might run them under some warm water, or take a nice bath.  I find that when I do this, the water will initially feel unbearably hot on those extremities.  I usually grow accustomed soon.  Your yoghurt culture is the same way.  Let it grow accustomed to its environment.

Pour the now soupy mixture back into the milk and stir.  Now decant into your nice jar and cap.  Your final act is to now cultivate those stolen cultures, and to do so you need some warmth.  People have devised some of the most elaborate, ridiculous setups to warm yoghurt; ignore them all.  You can do a few simple things : (A) I have an oven with a pilot light, sitting the jar inside keeps it plenty warm. (B) If you have a crock pot/slow cooker, fill it halfway with some water, put it on low, and sit the jar in the water. (C) Put your oven on the lowest temperature possible for about 10 minutes, open the door for a few seconds, put the jar in and don't open it again (feel free to comment with your own methods).

You just need to keep it in the vicinity of 38º C / 100º F.  Keep it in this vicinity for at least 4 hours, more if you would like it very sour.  Take it out of its warmth, and place it in the fridge to firm up a bit and enjoy your stolen yoghurt****.  The best thing is that if you don't let it sit for too long (no more than 1.5 weeks), you can now just use your stolen cultures to make more (just don't eat it all).  No need to buy a new cup every time! 

* Spell yoghurt with a nice 'gh' in the middle.  The word is from Turkish, and has a nice voiced velar fricative in the middle, best represented with 'gh' not 'g.'

** Maybe self-explanatory, but using any other flavor will probably result in very odd-tasting yoghurt.  Also, don't use 0% or 1% fat yoghurt, it has a number of fixatives so that it isn't like soup.

*** Whole-fat milk makes wonderful yoghurt that does not require any strange fixatives to thicken it.  Allow yourself this indulgence.  Also, the cultures in yoghurt eat all the lactose (hence its sour nature), so give some a small try if you happen to be sensitive to lactose, you might be able to handle it.

**** If you like the ultra-thickness of Greek-style yoghurt, just dump your yoghurt into a cheesecloth, or really any other finely-meshed cloth (I once used an old T-shirt) and let it sit for a few hours.  This yoghurt will likely be a bit runnier than you may be used to.  You can always add a shake of unflavored gelatin prior to jarring if you find yourself bothered by this feature.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Processes & Recipes

I'll probably write one of these posts each week.  On Wednesday (I am not normally schedule sensitive like that, but it feels right). By 'these posts' I mean reflections.

Maybe my readers have not noticed in the least, but I have been consciously avoiding the moniker "recipe" for the things I add here (preferring "process").  There are two reasons behind this avoidance.  The first is that I have always had difficulty spelling "recipe" correctly.  I always put an extra i between the the p and e (recipie) and then have to back and fix it.  "Process," though at times one is tempted to add an extra c, is easier for me to spell and ends with a beautiful gliding hiss that draws you into the next word (instead of that explosive "pe" that tends to wind you).

The second is much more important, and goes back to the intent of this blog.  The word "recipe" comes from Latin, and is the imperative form of recipere, which makes "to take" (incidentally, this is why you see on your prescriptions).  It later came to mean something related to a list of ingredients that one uses in food preparation.   I probably won't give too many recipes on this blog, as most of them are kind of 'second-level' cooking, and depend on ingredients that are often not ingredients, but rather previously conglomerated ingredients.  That is, in simpler terms, most recipes depend on your going and buying butter or bread, ketchup, yoghurt, soy sauce, cheese, etc.  This style of cookery makes it so very easy to be completely disconnected from the process of cooking. 

So.  I use "process" to describe what is going on here (past participle of procedere, "to go forward").  I want to give all of you the tools and abilities to get out from under oppressive recipes, and get into the course and method of conscious cookery.  By this I don't mean knowledge of complicated technique or bringing a perfect soufflé to table.  By this I mean deconstructing the cookbook.  By this I mean questioning the inclusion of "tomato sauce" or "chicken stock" as if the ingredient exists in its natural form as such.  I even mean asking what the hell a "sirloin steak" is without the cow?  Or a "turkey breast"?

This journey is not simply about gaining a bunch of nifty skills (though you will) - it is also about gaining a conscious appreciation for the foundations of cookery, and applying this consciousness to the pile of cookbooks you have laying around (I am not exempt from this charge!).  

Take one recipe this week and totally deconstruct it.  Surely, some recipes might take less work than others.   

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Butter in Any Language... always delicious.  So, today is butter - an ingredient so often maligned, blamed, and imitated with truly awful analogs (I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! - Really? I can).  Making butter always conjured images of someone churning for hours on end, and for some reason always struck me as difficult.  So today's process is a story of not going with your gut.  Sometimes, going with your gut is a really good idea - but if I had done so, I would have never made delicious butter.  

This is a process for what is usually called 'sweet cream' butter. Allow yourself to be amazed at how much you've been missing by getting those squared-off blocks and spread some on your bread, add some to your vegetables, and never again return to an imitation that calls itself out in its brand name.

Sweet Cream Butter
- Heavy Cream (Any kind you want: ultra-pasteurized, regular, or you can skim it from the top of raw milk, though if you want to do this be sure that the milk has rested for a few days, better yields come from a well-rested milk than fresh)
Seriously, you only need heavy cream for this (and some salt if you like to add it to your butter).  Throw your cream in a jar which has a good lid so that it is 1/2 - 2/3 of the way full.  You can do this in whatever quantity you would like.  Make all the butter you want or need.  
Now, shake your jar* in a vigorous manner for a good bit.  You need to be firm and confident with your cream - you are clobbering membranes here.  The membranes must be thoroughly clobbered before you can possibly have any hope of delicious butter.

A note on the shaking - you well may grow weary and a bit dinted from all the vibration.  If you feel this way, pass the jar to a spouse, child, or any person reasonably capable of performing a good shake and have a whiskey sour, a Campari on the rocks, or a few raw oysters.  Also, at some point you will inevitably feel as though you have a jar of thick whipped cream that is no longer moving, do not give up here, an amazing transformation will take place shortly!

The transformation will look something like a whitish liquid and small globules of butter suddenly moving around.  You now have butter and buttermilk**!  You are now at a crossroads again, though less morally ambiguous as yesterday's.  If you plan to use your butter soon (like that day), give it a few more shakes to get it to the point of clobbered cleavage, take it out of the jar and put it in some kind of urn (you can also add some salt now if you'd like).  

Alternately, if you have either made a tremendous quantity of butter, or would like to use it in the future you need to give it a wash.  To do this, get a nice bit of very cold (possibly ice) water.  After extracting and saving your buttermilk, pour a bit of water into the jar and shake, it will get cloudy.  Pour this off.  Add some more water and mash your butter around a few times with a fork.  Pour the cloudy water off again.  Repeat this alternating process a few times until your water is reasonably clear.  Then do the same as above.  Urn it and cool it off, it will last about a week if you've done a good job washing.

* Please do this by the jar method.  I am not even going to tell you another way because it is just such a caricature of everything I stand for.  You can probably figure it out though.

** Save your buttermilk.  This is not the sour-tasting stuff you get for pancakes.  That is usually just skim milk with some cultures in it.  You can culture this buttermilk if you would like, but it goes nicely in pancakes, or any number of other baking applications.  You can also just drink it.


Monday, February 14, 2011

The True Bread

Now for something you can actually eat.  Take a glance sometime at the ingredients in most bread you buy at the store.  Even the fancy stuff that costs lots of money.  Also note that "natural flavorings/enzymes" covers a multitude of sins.  

True Bread

Get used to eating a bread with a real crust on it. If you can squeeze your bread into a cube with your bare hands, it is too soft (I regularly did this at grocery stores up until sophomore year in college) . The crust on a piece of good bread should require care and time while eating, lest it cause you gum lesions.

- Your Old Friend (take her or him out of the fridge a bit before you start, the top picture is mine)
- 550g (a light 4.75 cups / 1.25 lb.) Flour
- A heavy throw of salt
- 275 ml (a bit more than 9 oz / 1 cup) 26º C (78º F) Water*
- 5g (4 Tbsp) Baker's yeast

Same deal as before.   Get the yeast in the water first, to wake up for about 8 minutes.  Don't be too rough with it at first - do you like having the covers torn off of you in the morning?

While the yeast awakens, throw your flour and salt together to commingle.  Make a well in the center and once the yeast is awakened amidst the water, pour it in. Mix this in a general manner with a spoon for a short time, and then throw in your old friend.  

Now, you hit a crossroads, you may either put this mixture into a bread machine or stand mixer (should you be so equipped) for the kneading; or do it manually.  If you do the first (and cheat the process), let it knead for 6-8 minutes on medium - it should pull off from the sides of the bowl.  For the latter, knead the dough with your hands** for at least 10 minutes.  You must now be firm with the yeast.  It should be awake and ready to work.  The dough should look beautiful and be springy when you poke it. Take a rest for 10 minutes.

After your (and your dough's) rest, cut it into five equally proportioned balls.  These are your loaves.  You can cut these however you want.  I like smaller loaves, so I cut the dough into smaller pieces and put 2-3 in each loaf pan.  Feel free to do 2 big loaves if you'd like, or 100 baby loaves.  Put them into greased loaf pans, sprinkle with flour, cover with a light towel, and set them somewhere warmish (about 26º C / 78º F)  for the better part of an hour.  They will double into wonderful, buttock-like loaves, and you can have a bath, drink a few whiskey sours, or read up on your esoterica.

When your hour is up, preheat your oven to 220º C / 425º F.  Place the loaves in and bake for 20 minutes.  Then, carefully shimmy them out of their pans, and set them on their sides for 8 more minutes.  Repeat for the other side (so total cooking time is 20 + 8 + 8 minutes).  They should knock nicely when done.  Cool them on some type of rack.  

Be sure to try some right away, but if you find your loaf quotient too great, slice and freeze.  I'll give you something to put it on your bread tomorrow.  True Bread.

* Consider de-chlorinating your water if you live in the city like me. I got a bottle of de-chlorinator fairly cheap at a pet supply store and it lasts forever.  Yeast is a living thing, so in the same way that you'd rather not wake up in a heavily-chlorinated environment, neither does yeast.

** Kneading does not have to be anything fancy.  Just punch, pull, roll, stretch, and mash your dough around in a fairly firm manner.  The main thing to understand is that you are trying to stretch out the gluten in the flour so that your bread is not overly dense.  Do whatever it takes to get your dough to this point.

Friday, February 11, 2011

An Old Friend

We've arrived!  The start of our journey.  My grandfather calls various items that he owns "old friend" because they have lasted a good deal of time without major problems.  Today's process is also called by this name, and has little to do with that description.

What you are making is not a "starter" (we'll do that later).  It is a kind of one-time deal that might be called a "biga" or "poolish" or "sponge" (usually delineated by level of moisture - call yours "old friend" and no one will bother you). We'll add it to a nice loaf dough tomorrow.

Three ingredients + time = tasty bread. 

Old Friend

Today's process is to be undertaken one day (24 hours) prior to your baking a bread.  Baking bread takes a bit of time with rising and all, so why not put it off by one day, and end up with a more wonderful result?

- 500g (a light 4.25 cups / 1lb.) of White flour*
- 300ml (about 10 oz. / 1.25 cups) of 26º C (78º F) Water
- 2g (about 2 Tbsp.) of Baker's yeast
Start out with your water. I put the temperature there because it is important. I found that having both faucets on full resulted in about the right temperature water.  Lots of folks kill half of their yeast because they approximate "warm" water at about 100º.  Too hot!  Yeast murder!  Use a thermometer if you have one (it is not a bad investment).

Add your yeast to the water by sprinkling it on top.   Baker's yeast usually comes in larger packages at natural food stores, and is much happier (and less expensive) yeast than the type you get in the little packets.  You can use those too if you want though.  Now let the yeast sit for 2 minutes without stirring, then mix it all up, and let it sit for a few more minutes. This wakes your yeast up - it is kind of sleepy if you've been keeping it in the fridge (which you should!).

Put your flour in a bowl, make a well in it, and dump in your yeasty water.  Stir a bit with a spoon, and then give a few nice grabs with your hands to make sure everything is incorporated.  It should be a rough, slightly dense mass that a spoon can be jabbed into and stay in place (like the sword in the stone).  You might wash out your bowl at this point, oil it a tad, and put your Old Friend back in.  Let the flour and warmed yeast mingle blissfully for 24 hours in the fridge.

*NB: Baking by weight is easier.  The metric system is easier. You'll need a scale to do this.

Polder 2109 Gourmet Add'N'Weigh Scale, 5-Pound
Red Star Baking Yeast, Vacuum Packed, 2 Pounds (32 ounces - 908 g)
Taylor Classic Instant-Read Pocket Thermometer


Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Brief History of Time

I promise that I will stop with these semi-apologetic, theoretical posts and get down to some real material very soon.  Indulge me once more.

You have plenty of time.  Fergus Henderson, in his highly recommended book, "The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating (see link below)" has a wonderful quote:
Taking time with your food does not mean long, intricate recipes, just a little thinking ahead...not long and complicated processes, just a matter of time, which contrary to today's mood, we still have on our side.
Many of the skills I outline here will take some time (both to get the hang of, and sometimes just to do).  The king virtue of the aforementioned rubbish that is passed off as food and drink seems to be convenience and the compression of processes that frankly take time.

Hence, many of these processes will be easy, but few will be "time-savers." Allow yourself to discover just how much time you do have on your side with some of these processes, and allow yourself to marvel at just how marvelous things can taste when proper time is allowed for true developing of flavours.

Finally, you'll begin to realize how connected you will become to your foodstuffs through this time-consciousness.  You can gain an acquaintance after 5 minutes of interaction, but the kind of friendship that you cherish and maintain throughout your life takes months, or years.  Commit to making lasting friendships with your transformed cabbages, your mother doughs, and your newly mucilaginous stocks.

 Promised Link (the best $13 I have spent in the past month):

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Beginning

I have posted some of the basic information about where this blog will go, etc. in the pages bar above.  Please read, and I will be back soon with my very first actual post, for all of you, the doughletariat.  The picture is a clue as to where I'll start.