Deep in the Cheesemaking Process…

Lemon Cheese

That is where I am right now – it is not really a physical place, more of a liminal, metaphysical place. A place with a lot of waiting – but not at all like “purgatory”, because the whole process is deeply moving to the human soul and gratifying. Making things like cheese, yogurt, fermented vegetables and preserving at home harkens back to a time that we all come from, no matter where in the world we are or where we come from. A time when people had a hand in making much of their foodstuffs and worked with their natural surroundings using natural airborne elements, like yeasts, bacteria and molds as well as more physical elements like milk and vegetables to make special foods. This is a time where people had the skills to take care of themselves and could feed their families much by their own hands or the hands of their neighbors.

There is something very meditative about making cheese, all the watching, stirring, simmering and pouring. For me, it is a combination of things – the fact that I get to pull out my special cheesemaking supplies from my special “cultured things” drawer in the kitchen. There is also the use of special elements, like culture and rennet that magically transform milk into what the Scots used to call “white meat”. Then there is all that beautiful, creamy milk, from cows that I know at Applecheek Farm, being poured into large pans and pots. Who can forget cheesecloth, that magical helpmate that strains the cheese and separates the curds from the whey? – my favorite part. Making cheese makes me giddy. Hearing about cheese and the history of cheese has me enraptured – writing about cheese, well, that is fun too!

Cheese Press and Making Petit Brie

For the past two weeks in my Value Added Products course at Sterling College, we have been making dairy products, mostly in the form of cheese. Currently I am sitting at my computer looking towards the kitchen to the cheesemaking process. I am making a special cheese for my final project – something I will share with you next week. I am really excited about this cheese, because I kind of made up the recipe myself based on all the amazing information I have gotten through the course these past weeks. It is a historic cheese, and so because of that, it was pre-rennet and pre-cheese culture. So in order to implement these items, I have had the pleasure of working with a few sources, one is Rory Stone from Highland Fine Cheeses and the other, my instructor Anne. I have been going back and forth with them with ideas for how to make this cheese, and so I have decided to make 2 versions, using two different methods and I can’t wait to share them with you!

Saint Maure, Yogurt Cheese in Herbed Oil and a huge pot of milk (Hi Anne!)
But first I figured it would make sense to share some pictures and show you what we have been making these past two weeks:

Mozzarella Curds (not the 30-minute Mozzarella)
Lemon Cheese with Dried Fruits
Yogurt and Herbed Yogurt Cheese in Herbed Olive Oil
Butter
Ricotta (lots and lots of Ricotta)
Chevre
Queso Fresco
Petit Brie
Cultured Butter and Real Buttermilk

And this is just the group I was in! While we were making all of these, the other group made:

Fromage Blanc
Panir
Crème Fraiche
Butter
Mozzarella
Reblochon
Feta
Cultured Butter and Real Buttermilk
Saint Maure

Making Butter – special thanks to one of my group members – Karen for being my hand model in these photos…

So far, we have tasted the mozzarella, lemon cheese, ricotta and butters and by far my favorite was the lemon cheese. Everyone else seemed to love it too – and the best part is that it was SO EASY to make and the smell in the kitchen when you are making this – OH WOW. I am serious, people. Here are the ingredients: milk, heavy cream, lemon juice, salt, lemon zest and dried fruits. That is it – no special cultures or rennet needed. This cheese would be great as a dessert cheese served with a little glass of limoncello, or as an appetizer – as it is not too sweet.

There are several different ways that cheese curds are formed. I am not going to get all science-y on you – I couldn’t if I wanted to, but I will just say, if you were around in the 90’s and know what a koosh ball is, you are halfway there…an inside joke for cheesemakers.

ANYWAY, curd is formed through an acid – usually in the form of lactic acid bacteria – those friendly bacteria that are in all cultured foods from yogurt to sauerkraut. In the case of lemon cheese, you use lemon juice. What makes cheese really different from one another is the medium you use to form the curds (and various other factors like cooking temperature, size of cut curds and whether external pressure is used) which either leads to a quick acidification or delayed acid production. For example this lemon cheese and a cheese like fresh chevre are both quick to acidify. Whereas Alpine style cheeses, like Emmentaler are not.

So I leave you with these delicious (and easy!) Lemon Cheese and Yogurt Cheese recipes and the knowledge that the students, faculty and staff at Sterling College eat really really well – check out the beautiful platter of lemon cheese that went to the dining hall for lunch!

Lemon Cheese with Dried Fruit
From Garde Manger by the Culinary Institute of America

INGREDIENTS:
3 quarts whole milk – we used cows
1 quart heavy cream
10 fl oz lemon juice, strained and chilled
2 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon zest
4 oz chopped dried fruit (apricots, cherries, cranberries, raisins, etc)

METHOD:

Day 1:

1) Heat the milk and cream in a double boiler to 100F
2) Remove from the heat and add lemon juice. Stir very gently and briefly until milk and cream mixture starts to curdle and thicken
3) Rest at room temperature for about 3-4 hours
4) Drain the cud for 8-12 hours under refrigeration in a cheesecloth-lined colander or in a cheesecloth or muslin bag set to hang over a bowl

Day 2:
5) Transfer cheese to a bowl and work in the salt, lemon zest and dried fruits
6) Press into a cheesecloth lined mold, top with a weight and allow to rest overnight under refrigeration. (If you don’t have a mold, I would put it back in the cheesecloth lined colander – you will have a round ball shape and the cheese will be more spreadable – as you won’t be pressing any more liquid out, but just allowing it to drain a little more naturally).

Day 3:
7) Unmold and serve. Can be kept wrapped under refrigeration for up to 4 days.

YOGURT CHEESE

An even easier recipe is for yogurt cheese – just get any kind of yogurt and strain it, in the refrigerator, in a cheesecloth lined colander for 12-24 hours. Then you can mix it with salt & herbs and use as a dip for veggies or to spread on bread or crackers!

Oh and if you want to see what our fermented and cured meats are up to, check it out!

Summer Solstice 2011

Happy Summer Solstice to all my readers in the Northern Hemisphere!

 

The Summer Solstice marks the beginning of summer and is the longest day of the year! Here in Northern Vermont, it began getting dark around 9:30 PM. Sitting out on our side deck enjoying the mountain views and listening to all the sounds – barnyard animals, birds, frogs, insects made me think about past Solstices, and I recalled my time living in Norway when it was still bright as day at 2 AM! Very different but both great experiences!

 

I like to celebrate my Northern European roots on the Solstices and usually we toast with a local sparkling mead. Unfortunately we were not able to find the mead yesterday, so we settled on Sah’tea by Dogfish Head Ales. I was drawn to the graphics on the label – as it features my favorite animal, the Reindeer. Sah’tea is based on a 9th century Finnish recipe, Sahti. It is brewed with rye and juniper berries. They break with tradition by adding chai tea at the end of the boil. The flavor of the ale was intense with the chai spices tickling the palette. The color was a darker amber than we are used to seeing in an ale. It is a very unique brew, not something I would want every day, but it was definitely a good choice for a celebratory meal!

As for the nibbles, we decided on an antipasti of sorts. For proteins we had prosciutto, fresh marinated anchovies, duck rilettes and 2 types of cheese – a raw cow’s raclette and a sheep’s milk Lancashire. We also had assorted olives, peppadew peppers (which were delicious stuffed with rilletes), artichoke hearts homemade pickles – daikon radish and carrots. For dessert we had fresh, local, organic strawberries with fresh whipped cream!

 

We had a great evening, enjoying our al fresco meal and ending the night by “tucking in” all the animals. It is quiet moments like this that make everything feel right in the world. Hope you enjoyed yours too!

Natural Fruit Soda: Water Kefir and LOTS of Appreciation

Delicious and healthy homemade natural soda: Bartlett Pear (beginning of second fermentation), Turkish Apricot and Montmorency Cherry

WAIT FOR IT….

I am feeling so grateful for all the attention this little blog of mine has gotten lately. I feel really fortunate to have found my voice with this blog over the last 2 years, and recently have had so much support coming in for that voice and the work we do on our homestead! THANK YOU! It is amazing the outpouring of notes, questions and appreciation we have been getting since we really starting doing our Life’s Work here in Northern Vermont and that is no small thing. So I thank you, if you are reading this, for your support, on the blog and also through facebook and twitter.

Today is no exception. My kitchen and blog is being featured on CHEESESLAVE today through AnnMarie’s new series: Real Food Kitchen Tour! This is an honor on so many fronts. Not only is CHEESESLAVE a very successful food blog at the heart of the real food movement, but AnnMarie and I are a bit like kindred spirits, her starting Real Food Media around the time Roberto and I started The Foodie Blogroll. So we have conversed often not only about food, farms, sustainability but also about business! I really appreciate the work she does with Real Food Media and small farms! So thanks AnnMarie for your support and for the feature! We hope to see you and Seth here in the future – I know we would have a great time together!

In that light and to show my appreciation, I want to share with you a simple technique for making a delicious, fizzy and flavorful PROBIOTIC “soda”.  That’s right, a soda that is actually good for you. Really good for you. Now the technique is simple, but I will tell you that I have worked on perfecting it over a couple of months. Many people have heard of dairy kefir, that is a kefir that is made with dairy and is a bit like a yogurt smoothie. Water kefir is a bit different in that instead of fermenting in the presence of lactase (sugar found in dairy) it ferments in the presence of the other “-oses”, like sucrose and fructose. I use organic cane sugar. Last year I tried using maple, and may try that again, but most people use organic cane sugar, so I decided to be a purist. For me, the most important thing in making a fizzy, non-dairy probiotic drink is the FIZZ. Last year I brewed both water kefir and kombucha at home, and wasn’t 100% pleased with the outcome of either in regard to the fizz.

 

This year, I decided to do a double fermentation method, the first time brewing the kefir with sugar water, and then letting it ferment again in the presence of fruit.  This second fermentation creates a lot of beautiful fizzy bubbles, which was exactly what I was looking for! So far I have made a batch with tart cherry concentrate syrup and another batch using dried Turkish apricots. Both were excellent, but on the outset, we were both partial to the apricot.  I am currently brewing one with dried Bartlett pears as one of my favorite sodas is one from Sweden that is pear flavored.

I know kombucha is all the rage these days, and that is a good thing, as it is very good for you, but it can be very expensive – at $3-5 a bottle (16 oz) and I am always for saving money if you can make it yourself for substantially cheaper, which is absolutely the case here.

 

Now you can brew kombucha at home, but I find it to be a bit messy and cumbersome. Kombucha really needs a dark place to brew, and has to be brewed in a bowl with a towel over top, making it hard to move it to that dark spot. Water kefir on the other hand can be brewed right in a large mason jar on your countertop. There are no teabags or lots of pouring liquids, like there is with kombucha. All you need is sugar, water kefir grains, called Tibicos, which is a colony of beneficial bacteria and yeast, sugar and water. For complete instructions and variations and to obtain the water kefir grains, please visit Cultures for Health, by following this link or clicking on the ad on my right hand sidebar. They have the highest quality cultures (kefir, water kefir, kombucha, yogurt, sourdough, cheese, you name it) that are out there and I cannot recommend them highly enough! If you are a member of The Foodie Blogroll, please comment and enter to win a gift card from Cultures for Health!

The water kefir grains are about $16, but can be used INDEFINITELY. Making this a MUCH cheaper and not to mention far healthier option to soda, whether organic, or conventional – and you already know, you shouldn’t be drinking that stuff. You can experiment with your favorite flavors, and it couldn’t be easier to make and the taste is fantastic! I suggest getting some grains today so you can start making this refreshing, perfect for summer beverage!

Here is what you need.

* Water

* Organic Cane Sugar (1/4 cup to one quart of water)

* Water Kefir Grains

* Small unbleached muslin bag

* Clean glass jar (I use a quart size)

*Fruit of your choice

 

To Make Water Kefir:

Heat the sugar in some water to dissolve sugar. Let cool. Place kefir grains in the muslin bag and drop into the glass jar. Pour the sugar water into the jar and then fill the rest of the jar with water.  Place a cloth over the mouth of the jar and allow to sit out on the counter for 2-3 days. The first few times you use your grains, you may not notice any bubbles, this does not mean that your kefir is not culturing properly. You can tell by tasting your kefir before and after. Cultured kefir will still be sweet, but not as sweet as when you started. The bacteria in the grains feed on the sugar, meaning the sugar content decreases exponentially through the brewing process. I have noticed that in the spring and summer, my kefir cultures in about 48 hours. But in the winter it can take another day. Do not let kefir culture for more than 72 hours.

Once the kefir has cultured, pour it into a bottle with a secure lid (leave the grains out). Add about 1/8-1/4 cup of dried fruit of your choice and allow to brew for about 3-5 days with a tight lid on. Then rinse the muslin bag and you are ready to start the process all over again. Let your fruited batch brew until you see lots of bubbles form and it tastes like soda.  DO NOT SHAKE BOTTLE! Remove the fruit at this point, and use it to make clafoutis or put on top of ice cream, yogurt or pudding! You can store the kefir in this container, or pour it into a different glass container for storage and it can be stored in the fridge indefinitely.

TIP: To make your water kefir making experience even easier, I suggest purchasing (also from CFH), a small muslin bag that you can keep your grains in. This makes it easier to make subsequent batches. All you need to do it remove the bag and rinse it before making a new batch.

Bringing Home the Sausage, Part 2

Delicious Maple Smoked Bacon and Pork Loin

 

Before I get to the “meat” of my post, I want to give a great big THANK YOU to Rachel and the team from ThriftCultureNow.com for featuring me and this blog, as the Thrifty Blogger of the Week . You can follow them on facebook and get their Thrifty Tip of the day, on their facebook page I have to hand it to Rachel for painting me, the blog and our lifestyle in such a wonderful way. So please check out the article, and their website for more great info!

 

So last week, I shared with you a comprehensive post about breaking down a whole pig into useable parts, the genius of my friend Cole Ward, The Gourmet Butcher (who was also nice enough to give me a shout out on his blog, recently) and the making of fresh sausages.

 

This week in my Value Added Products class at Sterling College, our instructor, Chef Anne Obelnicki showed us about the art of curing, fermenting and smoking meats. We pretty much used up the rest of the pig yesterday. It was a long day – 10 hours of standing, cutting, simmering, mixing, grinding and stuffing in a hot and humid kitchen. I totally lost count of how many times I washed my hands in the first 5 minutes.  When I got home around 7, Roberto had dinner ready. I scarfed it down and went to bed shortly after. Dealing with a whole animal, even when you break it up into two days, is hard work, but it is also FUN. You get such a huge feeling of accomplishment from the whole process! Plus it is really fun working with a few other people feverishly to get it all done!

 

 

Yesterday we hot smoked the maple bacon and brined pork loins we started curing last week. We also smoked the hocks and the bones. Nothing on this pig went to waste. We trimmed the jowls to start curing guanciale and used the second shoulder to make fermented sausages – spicy sopressata and hunter’s loop. We also made another brine for the 2 hams – we injected the brine first and then placed the hams in the leftover brine to continue curing. These products will have to ferment and cure for several weeks, so I am not sure I will be able to taste the outcome. But the preparation was an education in and of itself, and has led to a lot more questions for me, mainly about the use of nitrites.

 

“Pink Salt”, spice blend for spicy sopressata and wood chips soaking

 

I guess it is a good thing that I don’t want to make sausages for a living, as Roberto and I have been avoiding foods with nitrites for several years now. I did a lot of reading this week about charcuterie, and it seems that if you are going to age anything that will not be cooked at some point, nitrites are used.  For example, you don’t need nitrites to cure bacon, since that will be hot smoked once it has cured. But you do use nitrites to make salami, sopressata and various other cured meats that will not be cooked.

 

Apparently nitrites are naturally occurring and can be found in dirt, rocks, etc as well in an abundance of vegetables, most notably beets and celery, which is what some producers of cured meats use in the place of “pink salt” ( “pink salt” is salt mixed with a smaller amount of powdered nitrites that is dyed pink so that you don’t sprinkle it on your eggs by mistake) when curing.  So even “Nitrate Free” foods still contain nitrites, even if it is just in the form of celery juice, because nitrites are naturally occurring.

 

Nitrites do two things when curing – preserves the food and contributes to aesthetics – namely color and taste. It reacts in the meat to form nitric oxide which retards rancidity and suppresses the growth of harmful bacteria, like the ones that cause botulism. However, nitrites react with amino acids in our digestive tract to create nitrosamines, known DNA-damaging chemicals.  Not only that, but you know it is harmful when it is suggested to use gloves when working with “pink salt” and other forms of curing salt. Yes, it is supposed to convert to something less harmful through the aging process, but can something like that ever be truly safe?

 

According to Harold McGee, the author of famed book : On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, “…yet at present there is no clear evidence that the nitrites in cured meats increase the risk of developing cancer…” yet he also exclaims in the same book when comparing the difference in taste between grass and grain-fed beef that “another important contributor to grass-fed flavor is skatole, which on its own smells like manure!” and also, “the saturated fats typical of meats raise blood cholesterol levels and can contribute to heart disease”. So personally, I think I will take his lax attitude towards nitrites with a grain of sea salt.

 

This issue of nitrites is something I definitely need to explore more. Like, is there a difference between naturally occurring nitrites, like celery juice and sodium nitrite which is added to many processed foods.  Luckily we don’t eat much cured meat or any processed foods.  Just bacon once a week…and our favorite prosciutto – Prosciutto di Parma which I also learned in the Harold McGee book,  is cured with sea salt not nitrites.

 

But the fact that an old and revered food art, like charcuterie has a long use of nitrites in its history is a little disheartening and I was pretty bummed to learn about it. I guess you can’t assume just because it is a traditional art, or because it is “natural” it is good for you.  I guess in the case of cured meats, it is the lesser of two evils – botulism or nitrites? I am not sure I like the odds.

 

If you have more information about nitrites, the differences (or NOT) between naturally occurring and things like “pink salt”, I want to hear about it! So please leave a comment.

Bringing Home the Sausage

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know that I don’t mince words and I am passionate about local foods, homesteading and knowing where your food comes from. So here it is, in living color. If you are disturbed by these images all I can say is you should be more disturbed about what goes on in your local chain grocery or within the FDA and what they allow to go on in your local chain grocery store or CAFO farms where most of this country’s meat comes from.

For those of you who follow me on facebook, you know that last week I started my studies this week at Sterling College’s Vermont’s Table program. It is a mix of culinary arts, food entrepreneurship and agriculture studies. If you follow my farm blog, Got Goats? you will have read about my thoughts on Whole Farm Thinking and Traditional Farming methods and more on why I want to be a farmer.

Well yesterday was my first all day culinary course, Value-Added Products. It is all day on Thursdays and is a practical skills hands -on course. The day before I read several articles on charcuterie , the glories of sausage making and meat in general – how it is produced, the various muscles and how they develop into meat and primal and retail cuts.

 

Cole Ward

All that reading in no way replaces spending 4 hours with a real expert. Yesterday that expert was Cole Ward aka The Gourmet Butcher and a person that I am honored to know, learn from and be inspired by. Cole knows his stuff. He was recently featured in the book Primal Cuts, published by Welcome Books about the 50 best butchers in America. Cole has been a butcher for almost 50 years. He has seen the changes to the art of butchery over his long years of expertise, and frankly is not at all impressed by the current trends in butchery, especially that of grocery stores. If you haven’t seen his blog, I would suggest keeping an eye on it. He mentioned to us that he is going to be writing many more posts about what goes on behind the scenes in many grocery stores across the country that consumers really need to know about. Let’s just say he wouldn’t feed ground meat from the grocery store to his dog. Everyone who eats and buys meat needs to be informed.

Yesterday Cole was a guest teacher in our class of 5 students. We butchered a 270 lb local, pastured pig. He did the first half through demonstration, and then we, the students butchered the second half. I had the honor of butchering a lamb with Cole this past fall, and it was an unforgettable experience. If you want to learn from this master butcher, you can! He is holding a 2-day workshop at the end of the month . We will be butchering another pig and part of a beef cow. Participants will learn the skills, and the meat will be divided between all attendees. Lunch is included. This is a really great opportunity to learn more about the art of butchery from the best. Cole is immensely entertaining, un-untiringly patient and full of so much knowledge. He is a real integral figure in the local food movement and an ally to homesteaders and small farmers who really need a lot of help learning these skills. Simply put, Cole is AWESOME and deserves all the accolades one can muster.

 

Natural hog casings, ground sausage, pork shoulder with wine soaked cranberries and spices, grinding the sausage

After Cole left, we set up to process a lot of the meat. We were divided into two groups, and each group made one kind of sausage and set up curing another cut for smoking next week. My group cured the pork belly for maple bacon, and made a cranberry-sage link sausage, using natural hog casings. The other group made brine for the 2 loins and made Loukanika sausage, flavored with orange zest, bay and coriander. Next week we will focus on the smoking and make some other products.

 

Cranberry-Sage Sausage and  Loukanika Sausage

Roberto and I had the sausages for breakfast this morning and they were both delicious. We particularly liked the cranberry-sage and feel it complements a breakfast meal, perfectly. The rest of the sausages will be feeding the Sterling College population at their barbecue tonight for dinner. Since I live off campus, and don’t eat my meals there, I get to take home my portion.

We were on our feet for 8 hours, with a 40 minute break for lunch. It was a long day, but very satisfying. I loved the communal labor involved to turn what was essentially a freshly slaughtered animal into a variety of food items, in a short period of time.

One thing we did learn though, is, if you are ever in the market for a whole pig that you plan to butcher yourself, make sure you do not wrap it in plastic, until it has been cut up to your liking and going into the freezer. Our pig was delivered in plastic and because plastic makes the flesh sweat, we were not able to use the skin or the head and many of the exposed bones, because of the moisture, those areas were beginning to take on an unfavorable characteristic. So we had to take extra measures to clean the exposed surfaces of the pig with salt and also soak other parts in a salt water brine for several hours. Not to mention having to throw away nearly 30 lbs of what should have been useable stuff.

Many farms are new to farmshares, and sending out whole animals vs. nicely vacuum sealed pieces to their customers. This is information that years of industrial farming, and consumers buying meat at the grocery store, has allowed our culture to lose. But thankfully demand for whole animals, and on farm buying has gotten bigger in the past few years. This is a GOOD thing. But your farmer may not be used to it, and may appreciate a gentle reminder that whole animals should be wrapped in cheesecloth or paper. They would much more prefer you telling them this, than having dissatisfied customers on the other end.