Friday, May 21, 2010

Much Ado About Yeast

When we were preparing to take on this challenge, I read Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, and essentially cursed myself with bad bread karma because I laughed at what I thought was the absurdity of a loving relationship between two people being in jeopardy because they don’t have bread.  Now, don’t get me wrong, our relationship is as healthy as ever, but anyone who knows me and has had to be around me talking about food for more than 5 minutes knows that I am going through some serious bread drama.  Unlike the couple in the 100 mile diet, we have access to a wide variety of flour (although none of it is my much loved, white all purpose standby), but something they neglect to talk about in the book and in fact something that Barbara Kingsolver neglects to talk about (as she talks about how easy it is to have your local, made from scratch pizza crust every Friday) is what makes the bread light and fluffy…YEAST!!!!  Going into this challenge, I didn’t realize the effect that these little microbes can have on my diet, but apparently the United States is not a fountain of yeast production.  Once I had searched for some time for a company that even sources their yeast in the United States and failed to find one, I decided to take a look at history.  Surely yeast comes from somewhere and the folks way back when couldn’t just run down to the local Kroger for a package of Instant Dry Yeast.  What did they do?  They made sourdough starters (I know there are other starters that can be made, but they are a bit complicated for me right now, especially after you see the issues I have with this most common variety). 

First, I tried to make my own, which involves mixing flour and water in a jar and having it sit out for some wild yeasties to land in.  Unfortunately, after quite some time passed and my starter did not bubble at all (in fact it became like a disgusting lab experiment gone wrong), I came to see that my kitchen is not a hub for these microbes.  I searched high and low calling local bakeries asking for a bit of their sourdough starters, but believe it or not, a LOT of the bakeries in the area import their ingredients like that.  However, after a while, I hunted down two generous bakers that provided me with a starter each.  Your starter is kind of like a weird pet that, like a cat or a dog, can make your house stink if you make it angry.  You have to feed it the right proportions of warm water and flour and these amounts vary depending on whether you are planning to use it or not.  Your starter can keep indefinitely and goes into a kind of hibernation mode in the refrigerator where you just feed it once a week or so.  I did not treat my starters very well because I kept forgetting them, but I got one nice and frothy and made a loaf of bread.  The bread wasn’t bad (it rose over the pan I had it in) although it was a little heartier than I would like (aka I want fluffier bread).  I let the yeast build back up for a while (it stunk up the kitchen pretty well since it is SOURdough).  During the clip_image002next round, I tried to make two smaller loaves which, as you can see, managed to not rise at all and turned out more like biscotti (Jacob quite liked them but it’s not my ideal).  Shortly after that, I tried another recipe and got one that rose a little more but was still pretty tough and flat.  To make matters worse, my most active starter got infected with mold, so down the drain it went.  Now I have one in hibernation in the refrigerator, and frankly, I’m not sure if it even has any yeasties in it any more…I’m wondering what the heck these people who wrote books about eating local did about yeast, because they don’t mention it at all and it seems to be a huge issue with me!!!  If anyone knows of any yeast produced in the United States (ideally Ohio but if not, we’ll make do), please tell me who they are and where to get it!!!  I finally caved and bought a package of ‘organic’ dry active yeast from Germany (insert guilty face here) because I just want a little edible bread that doesn’t resemble the consistency of a brick.  Give me some advice Barbara Kingsolver, because I want some Friday pizza too!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stir Fry and Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies!

We had a few more culinary wins this weekend. Because I am helping Jacob make the big move to my house, I got to take a trip down to Athens and visit their wonderful farmers market. The low prices and wide variety of products made me literally jump for joy. I got a quart of strawberries for $4.50, a head of romaine about the size of my torso for $3, a Napa cabbage of the same size for $2, a zucchini for $.75, a cucumber for $1, and a pint of sugar snap peas for $3.50. I couldn’t believe the load of fresh goodies we got for such a small price! It really shows the difference in prices between more rural areas and the ritzier upscale towns.

With our bounty, we decided to make a stir fry. I cut up some normal cabbage we had on hand along with some asparagus, napa cabbage, sugar snap peas (removing the strings by snapping off an end and peeling off the string), wild onions from the backyard, roasted chicken (sliced up) of one whole chicken breast we had cooked previously, and noodles (we would have used our local ones but were out and didn’t get to our Clintonville Coop so we got egg noodles that are at least made by the local T. Marzetti’s company). While the noodles cooked, I sautéed the vegetables and chicken in an ice cube of chicken broth, adding salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and the magic ingredient: cumin. I rarely cook with that but I felt like it just needed a little extra something and that proved to be it! I don’t give specific amounts here because I’m finding more and more with stovetop cooking, I rarely measure. I just get a feel for what will work for us. I guess a safe estimate for everything regarding spices is between ¼ and 1 teaspoon depending on your personal tastes but you just really have to get a feel for it on your own. DO NOT OVERCOOK THE VEGETABLES!!! Far too often I have encountered people who claim they hate certain wonderful vegetables simply because they never had it properly cooked for them. The asparagus, peas, and even the regular cabbage should have a fair amount of crunch left to them. Essentially, you just want to heat them through but no more than that. It takes a little practice to get it perfect, but please, for the sake of your vegetables and your eaters, leave your vegetables having a little crunch to them! Once the pasta was cooked, I mixed it all together and dinner was served. This isn’t your typical Chinese stir fry because it doesn’t have a thick sauce, just a splash of tasty spices cooked into everything. It’s a lighter flavor, but that lets you appreciate the taste of the fresh vegetables and meat.

We got to make one of our favorite goodies using the zucchini: Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies. I was introduced to this recipe when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and became quite fond of it, because the moisture from vegetables clip_image002like carrots and zucchini tends to make my typically over-baked goodies moist. These cookies actually remind me more of muffin tops than cookies because they taste more like a breakfast bread with that added zucchini but that’s just because of my own experiences growing up. I will say that this recipe is not as cheap as it used to be before we went local. We used local eggs that we got at the Clintonville Coop, local Amish butter (next time we will use our own homemade butter), some of our precious brown sugar held over from the old days (soon we’ll try using white sugar and molasses as a substitute), local honey from the Clintonville Coop, organic Fair Trade vanilla from Whole Foods (EXPENSIVE!), the last of our all purpose white flour (next time we will get some of the Amish white whole wheat flour), Amish whole wheat bread flour (both flours from the Clintonville Coop), regular baking soda that we had in the cupboard, normal salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg, a mix of carob chips and grain sweetened chocolate chips by Sunspire (again, very expensive but we got some on sale at Whole Foods, they aren’t Fair Trade certified but the company seems dedicated to improving the lives of their growers), and finally our Athens zucchini. The cookies are amazing! We are donating a dozen to the Ronald McDonald House (our usual reason for baking – I used to be able to donate 2-3 dozen but with the high prices of the ingredients, we have to decrease that), another dozen are divided up to helpful neighbors, and the remaining cookies go to Jacob and myself (I’d like to think we deserve a few since we did pay for them and work hard to make them). I highly recommend making these when zucchini are overflowing from gardens!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Early May in the Garden

The garden challenges and successes continue to battle and I’m not sure which is coming out on top…  The strawberries are doing well now that we supplemented them with some healthier plants.  We had to trim off our first runner last weekend and continue to pick off the overambitious blossoms.  The potatoes are, for the most part, growing and we continue to cover them.  One square seems to still be dormant, so that may be 4 plants we don’t get.  If in another week or so we see nothing, we will refill that square and put in another type of plant.  The asparagus continues to grow into feathclip_image002[7]ery sticks which it’s supposed to do, so that’s good.  The peas are getting bigger each day, so I tied some string to the wooden dividers to guide them toward the fence.  Two of the three cauliflower plants decided to bite the dust since the plastic touched them when it was too cold, so I replaced them with some cauliflower plants I got for a bargain at Rife’s Market in Grandview.  I placed the extra cauliflower plants back with the raspberries since they don’t grow well in containers.  The spinach seems to be holding its own along with the carrots.  The big downer was that we lost our second batch of lettuce transplants again to the cold.  We transplanted 20 head lettuces and 20 leaf lettuces over the weekend and forgot to cover them when the frost came, so we lost every one of them!!!  We have some more seedlings in the basement but I am going to cave in and purchase some plants so we have something growing and producing during the first part of the harvest season.  That’s a bit depressing since I hear it’s supposed to be easy to grow lettuce and we have failed miserably.  The onions are still lookclip_image002[5]ing happy and the raspberries are growing, although some of them appear to have been bitten by frost or something because they have some blossom areas that have turned brown.  As you can see, I’ve been doing a bit of landscaping work, so now the raspberry bed has mulch which will hopefully help keep the weeds under control.  The pclip_image002eanut plant seems content in its pot as you can see on the left.  On the herb front, we put in some German Chamomile which wasn’t too happy with the transplant but seems to be hanging on.  We have at least one lavender plant that has shot a bloom up which is exciting.  The dill is still growing along with some new cilantro seedlings.  We are still waiting on the horseradish (I remain skeptical) and the bay leaf seems happy in its pot.  The rosemary appears to have a little new growth which is encouraging.  The chives don’t seem to be big fans of the cooler weather and have taken to being droopy but I think (fingers crossed) they will perk up soon.  We set out the tomato seedlings and sage seedlings to harden off, so we get to plant those at the frost free date.  I also started the cucumbers (a week late, oops!), zucchini, watermelons, and crenshaw melons in the basement over the weekend.  I managed to kill off a large portion of the herbs in the basement because I couldn’t see how dry they were until it was too late, so it looks like we may be purchasing some herb plants in the near future…sigh…At least we are having some successes, although it will feel a lot more rewarding when we are harvesting more than wild onions from the backyard. 

We also began putting in the arbor over the patio which will have grapes and hops growing on it.  One post is in, three more to go!  I picked up aclip_image002[9] few grape plants yesterday but still need to find the good eating varieties.  For now we have a white wine variety (the type escapes me) and the blue concord grape plant, which were both from Home Depot.  I ordered the hops online, so those should arrive in the near future.  We really need to get them all in the ground this month.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Hurray!!!!!!  We finally got our hands on some local popcorn and I could not be happier!  We got the lovely kernels at the first Worthington Farmers’ Market of the season from Pop and Judy’s Patch (George and Louise O’Briant – really nice people with great products!).  While we took turns mixing the butter last night, we made our first batch(es) of from-scratch popcorn.  Jacob took clip_image002charge for round one, consulting wikiHow and pouring some oil in the dutch oven and adding a few kernels.  Once those popped, he added 1/4 cup of the kernels and covered them.  We both watched with excitement as they popped but it soon became apparent that we were doing something wrong because they were not all popping at once and the kernels that did pop were burning.  Quickly we poured that out to reveal only about a quarter of the kernels popped and many of those were a bit blackened.  So here comes Katie for round two.  I tried another recipe from Simply Recipes that took a slightly different approach.  I put in some oil, salt, and added my few kernels.  Once those popped, I added 1/3 cup of kernels and pulled the dutch oven off the heat.  I counted 30 seconds and put it back on the stove with the lid slightly ajar.  Oncclip_image002[5]e they started really popping I held the pot just above the burner and shook it back and forth (kind of tricky while keeping the lid slightly ajar – we had a few kernels shoot across the room), but the extra effort definitely paid off.  As you can see, my kernels (on the left) were beautiful, crisp, puffy, and white with only a couple of unpopped kernels and Jacob’s (on the right) were an honest effort (and still pretty tasty).  We added a little bit too much salt, but the popcorn was still delicious!!!

Crème Brulee Leads to Butter

As part of a May Day basket, I received a very tasty mix for crème brulee that called for some heavy whipping cream.  The only container we could get that was locally sourced was the Snowville Creamery half gallon, which goodness knows is more whipping cream than we can use in a week.  However, Jacob and I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting so much lovely dairy, so we decided to make butter last night.  We followed the Thrifty Fun site’s instructions.  This is a really neat activity for kids to see or even participate in clip_image002depending on the method you choose.  I remember making butter in elementary school by shaking a mason jar which was pretty fun (especially if you have multiple children because it can take a while).  However, being mature adults (ok, maybe not so high on the mature ladder sometimes, but technically we are adults now) we opted for the electric mixer method.  You need to let the cream warm up just a little, so once it hit about 60 degrees we started working with it.  I poured the whipping cream into a large bowl and started mixing.  Unfortunately, a key point to remember is that whipping cream expands when you whip it (duh!) so halfway through that process I had to transfer the cream to a large pot that could clip_image002[5]contain all of it.  It’s fun to watch it go from a liquid to a whipped cream that holds peaks to all of a sudden this weird yellow chunky stuff with buttermilk pools.  At this point, Jacob took over and dumped out the buttermilk (you can keep it and use it as well, but since our cream was at the expiration date, we opted not to).  You then add cold water, mix it, and dump it again to clean the butter.  After doing this a few times, we added some salt to help preserve it and then put spoonfuls on a cookie sheet where Jacob pressed the water out with a wooden rice server.  It worked surprisingly well and it’s kind of cool to watch the little beads of water suddenly pop out of the butter.  We then placed the butter in mason jars, which personally I wish we could have done the butter in sticks because they are easier to work with but we didn’t have wax paper or containers for that.  So tada!!! we have butter!!  The hardest part is cleaning up the mess, which I made Jacob promise to do today while I was at work.  Hopefully that happens as smoothly as the butter was created - Jacob, you are my dishwashing hero!  Behold below, the finished product - our lovely butter.clip_image002[7]

Monday, May 3, 2010

Spring in the Garden

The garden continues to get more and more beautiful which is shocking to me (the Queen Black Thumb).  We had to pull out a few of the strawberries yesterday that just weren’t growing and clip_image002put in some new plants, which are quite large.  It’s sad having to pinch off the blossoms, but we just can’t let these ambitious Junebearing plants produce this year because it will impact the harvest next year.  At least we can get some everbearing strawberries after July.  The onions are gettinclip_image002[5]g quite tall and the raspberries are getting a few little blooms.  The carrots are starting to peak out of the soil, so we thinned them yesterday along with the spinach.  One of the cauliflowers is doing very well but the other two continue to struggle.  I think it’s because the plastic dipped down and touched them when it was too cold.  I hope they are able to bounce back.  One lettuce is hanging on for dear life and we have a bunch inside that will be transplanted soon.  That first round just didn’t go well.  The potatoes are in the ground but we are still anxiously awaiting the green growth.  The clip_image002[7]peas as you can see are coming along.  The distinct difference in the success of each variety is quite interesting.  The sugar snap peas are definitely slower than the garden and snow varieties.  I came across some red onion sets at Rife’s Market for a great price, so I put some of those along the side of the house near our dill.  That dill was the surprise of the weekend!  We bought a few plants thinking the seeds I had thrown by the side of the house and neglected would all fail.  Well, that’s the cue for production apparently because yesterday I got to looking at the ground and we now have about 20 dill plants springing up!  I’m wondering if the cilantro will pull a similar trick since we just bought some of those.  We also bought a few German Chamomile plants to put amongst the lavender.  Still no growth with the horseradish – I’m worried we planted it too deep, but we’ll just have to wait and see.  I just can’t wait to be able to harvest (and to put down some mulch in the beds around the house so I can stop weeding every day!!!).

Killer at Large and Food Inc.

The other weekend Jacob and I watched a few interesting documentaries that I have wanted to write about ever since and haven't had time until now.  The first one was Killer at Large which focuses on the obesity epidemic in the United States and the variety of causes involved.  This 2008 documentary takes an in-depth look at legislative, genetic, behavioral, and almost any other aspect of the causes of obesity you can think of.  The basic message is that obesity is a very real threat to us but there is no one factor we can point our finger at for causing obesity, it is a combination of things.  They do focus a bit on the whole issue of corn and high fructose corn syrup and how that became so prevalent in our foods by interviewing Michael Pollan and contrasts the industrial and small farm operations that supply food.  However, a majority of the film focuses on childhood obesity, and some of the issues tie in very well with the Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution if anyone has seen that.  It addresses problems with cheap lunches provided to students that count french fries and ketchup as legitimate vegetables, the prevalence of vending machines at schools (and the uproar that occurs from PARENTS when they are taken away or filled with healthy items), and the lack of activity that students have.  Overall, I highly recommend this film simply because it does make you think a bit more about our society in terms of how it is treating our children. 
The second documentary we watched was Food Inc.  I am sort of disappointed in myself for not watching it sooner, but because I've read so many books and watched other similar documentaries, I delayed seeing it until now.  This documentary looks at our food system and how it affects us as consumers and the environment.  It tied in nicely with Killer at Large since they both focus on the corn issue and obesity.  A lot of Food Inc. is hard to see, especially if you aren't really all that familiar with the issues at hand.  The footage of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and the secrecy of large industrial agricultural companies is always a tough pill to swallow (for a look at one of the CAFOs in our backyard, check out Ohio Fresh Eggs).  Aside of animal cruelty issues, the documentary looks at acid resistant E. Coli strains that have developed as a result of the unsanitary conditions these animals are raised and slaughtered in.  It looks at Kevin's Law, which is trying to get safer meat in reaction to food recalls and the death of a young boy as a result of eating an infected hamburger.  The issues surrounding GMOs are discussed along with the problem of the various food industries becoming dominated by just a few companies.  This documentary is a great introduction to the industrial food chain if you are trying to get familiar with it.  It's also ideal for us educated veterans of the food industry because it reiterates just how important our local, safe food choices are and how important it is to stick to it even though it can be more difficult than the easy choice of running down the street to Kroger whenever you want.
You can find either of these documentaries at your local library (I know Columbus Metropolitan Library has them although Food Inc. is in high demand) and most video stores carry Food Inc.  Also, for teachers, Food Inc. does have a guide that goes with it which is also available at the Columbus Library.