Archive | Local Food RSS feed for this section

Press Your Luck: Farmhouse Cheddar

2 Mar

My dad is pretty handy. Proof? Take a look at what he built in my parents’ backyard last year:

When I decided that I really wanted to try making hard cheeses, I quickly realized that cheese presses weren’t exactly the most affordable pieces of equipment in the world. But the mechanism didn’t seem particularly complicated, and I was able to find simple plans on several websites (type “cheese press plans” into a search engine). Dad worked his magic and last weekend, I brought my press home to Arlington. (Thanks, dad!)

I decided to start with one of the simpler recipes in Ricki’s book, a farmhouse cheddar that would be ready to taste in about a month. The main reason I selected this recipe is that it offered the chance to practice many of the techniques involved in cheese making. Much like confectionery, the process is all about timing and chemistry. So, let’s cut to the cheese, err, chase:

First a note about these ingredients. The original recipe calls for double what you see here. I realized upon filling my pot with milk that two gallons weren’t going to fit and cut the recipe in half.

Click on any of the pictures to see larger versions.

  • -1 gallon whole milk
  • -One package of direct set mesophilic starter
  • -½ tbsp. cheese salt (non-iodized salt)
  • -¼ tablet rennet or ¼ tsp. rennet, dissolved in ¼ cup water. (I used double-strength rennet and needed only 1/8 tsp.)

Pour the milk into a large pot and place it in a sink of warm water. Gradually increase the temperature of the water bath, either by running more hot water from the tap or adding small amounts of boiling water, until the milk reaches 90 degrees F. Add the mesophilic starter and mix well for about a minute. Cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen for 45 minutes. Check the temperature every so often, you want to keep it as close to 90 degrees as possible. I left my pot in the warm water bath and added small amounts of hot water every 10 minutes or so to do this.

After 45 minutes, add the diluted rennet and stir, using a gentle up-and-down motion, for about a minute. Cover the pot and let it sit at 90 degrees F for 45 minutes or until the curd breaks cleanly. Cut the curd into a checkerboard pattern of ½ in. squares.

Again using the water bath method, slowly increase the temperature of the curd to 100 degrees. This can be a little tricky at first, since you don’t want to increase the temperature by more than 2 degrees every five minutes. Err on the slow side. Stir gently to keep the curds from matting together as they heat up. You’ll notice that they shrink a lot.

Once the curds reach 100 degrees, pour them into a colander lined with cheesecloth. Tie up the corners of the cheesecloth and hang the curds to drain in a non-drafty spot for an hour. You want to keep them fairly warm, so I hung them over the pot I used for heating.

After an hour, move the drained curd to a bowl and gently break into walnut sized pieces. Add the salt to the curds and toss lightly with your fingers to distribute evenly.

Firmly pack the curds into a mold (the teal pvc pipe pictured) lined with cheesecloth. Put the mold on top of an inverted plate over a pie pan. This allows the excess liquid to drain away from the cheese.

Fold the cheesecloth over the curds and place a snug fitting follower on top of them. Then add the pusher (the thinner, white piece of pvc pipe). Finally, place the board on top of the pusher and add weights as necessary.

For farmhouse cheddar, press at 10lbs. of pressure for 10 minutes, then remove, flip the cheese over and redress it in the cheesecloth…

Then 20lbs. of pressure for 10 minutes, flip, and redress…

And finally at 50lbs. of pressure (Fact: The Joy of Cooking and On Cooking weigh 10lbs.) for 12 hours. Don’t do what I did and neglect to think about how this would time out; I had to get up at 3 a.m. to take the 50lb. weights off. D’oh.

After 12 hours, you should have something that looks like this. Personally, I like the rather attractive dent left on one side from the inverted plate:

Put your cheese on a wooden board and allow it to air-dry at room temperature for 2-4 days. Turn it every so often to keep moisture from collecting on one side. Once the cheese has dulled in appearance and is no longer moist to the touch, you are ready to wax it.

Prior to waxing, refrigerate the cheese for several hours. You may also wipe it down with a paper towel dampened with vinegar to discourage mold growth.

Melt the cheese wax in a double-boiler until it reaches 210 degrees. Gently paint it on the cheese using a natural bristle or silicone brush, one side at a time.

Cover the wheel in two thin coats. My wax job was a little bit messy for a first rodeo, but I’m not really in a beauty contest here. You can always remove the wax and redo it (particularly useful if you decide to age it longer after cutting into it the first time), but we’ll see how things look in a month.

Age in a cool (below 68 degrees) environment for at least one month. Since the aging process began yesterday, I’ll be reporting back on 4-1-11 to let you know how it tastes. Hopefully it will not be a cruel April Fool’s joke.

Ciao for now,


My Cheesy Valentine

14 Feb

A few weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at cheese making. It’s something I’ve always wanted to give a go, but wanted to do a little bit of research before trying. (With graduate school out of the way, I’m now working through the backlog of cookbooks and recipes I neglected.) For someone who loves cheese as much as I do, the prospect of making my own was very exciting. Since I’d planned to make Joe a special meal for Valentine’s day, I saw it as an opportunity to get something extra-special on our plates.

I started with ricotta, the easiest cheese to make. If you have milk (whole and 2% yield the best consistency), buttermilk, and some cheesecloth, you can make ricotta in under a half-hour. Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth and set aside. Combine a half-gallon of milk with 2 cups of buttermilk in a large pot over medium high heat. Stir every so often to keep the mixture from scorching, but once it is hot and steaming, stop stirring. When the mixture reaches about 175 degrees F, the curds will separate from the whey. Gently ladle the curds into the cheesecloth, tie up the corners, and hang the cheese to drain for about 20 minutes. Voila! You’ve made ricotta. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Next up was another favorite: Mozzarella. This required a bit more special equipment, but I was able to order anything I needed from New England Cheese making Supply Co. I must recommend Ricki Carroll’s book, Home Cheese Making if you’re interested in learning all about the history and science behind cheese.

So here’s what you’ll need for mozzarella:


  • One gallon of milk*
  • 1 ½ tsp. citric acid dissolved in one cup of cold water
  • ¼ rennet tablet diluted in ¼ cup of cold water
  • 1/4 cup of cheese salt

*Note: Do not use milk that is labeled “ultra-pasteurized.” Pasteurized / homogenized milk will work just fine, but UP milk has been treated at such high temperatures that it is not suitable for most cheese making. (It will work for ricotta.)


  • A large pot
  • A small colander that can fit inside the pot and a pair of tongs (or a spider if you have one)
  • A thermometer that will clip onto the pot
  • A board for kneading
  • Heat resistant gloves (I used these—I bought them for when I use my mandoline because the hand guard on it is flimsy.)

Okay, here we go!

Combine the milk and citric acid/water mixture in a pot over medium-high heat while stirring vigorously, then stir gently while the milk heats to 90 degrees F.

Take the pot off of the heat and add the rennet, mixing in a gentle up and down motion for 30 seconds. Put a lid on the pot and leave it undisturbed for 5 minutes. When you remove the lid, the curd should look like custard and should show a clear separation between the curd and whey. Test by putting two fingers between the curd and the side of the pot. If you see a clean break, the curd is ready to cut. If it is too soft, wait another five minutes and test again. It took a total of 15 minutes in my kitchen.

Cut the curds into a checkerboard pattern and put the pot back over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring the curds gently until they reach 110 degrees F. Take the pot off of the heat and continue stirring gently for 3-4 minutes.

Gently ladle the curds into the colander over a bowl so that you can reserve the whey that drains off of them. Press them gently to remove as much whey as possible and so that they begin to form a cohesive unit.

Pour the whey that has collected in the bowl back into the pot, add the ¼ cup of salt, and allow it to heat to at least 175 degrees. (Put on your gloves!)

Dip the curds in the colander into the hot whey for several seconds.

Remove, and then knead the curds like bread dough. Repeat this process several times until the cheese is cohesive and stretchable. The cheese is ready when it is shiny and has a consistency similar to pulled taffy. Roll into a ball and place immediately in a bowl of cold water for ½ hour. This will improve the texture of the cheese.

From there you can slice, grate, or melt it however you like.

So what did I make for my Valentine?

I made a batch of homemade pasta (hail Lidia Bastianich’s recipe) and filled ravioli full of fresh cheese and spices. Topped it all off with a touch of tomato & sweet pepper sauce and sprinkled on a little extra ricotta for good measure. Simple, but with ingredients so lovely I wanted to let them speak.

We also had some spinach, artichoke and caramelized onion crostini with hot sopressata, and finished the meal with a decadent little pound cake with vanilla bean whipped cream and blueberry-lime coulis for dessert. Don’t worry, recipes for the apps and dessert are forthcoming!

For now, have a happy (and cheesy) Valentine’s day. Share it with the ones you love and remind them just how special they are to you.

Ciao for now,


Mystery Food Week 20: Grand Finale edition

14 Oct

Well here it is, the final week of Mystery Food 2010. The season seems to have come and gone in the blink of an eye this year. Here’s week 20:

Butternut squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, apples, and beets. How wonderfully autumn!

I still have last week’s pumpkin and an array of squash, so there will undoubtedly be a lot of canning this weekend. I got around to taking care of some of the apples over the weekend after finishing the first round of Project Boerewors. (First round because the boss gave me some ideas for improvement and delicious culinary projects take time and refinement.)

But yes, about those apples. I had planned to can pie filling because Rome apples stand up incredibly well in baking applications, but alas I forgot to order some Clear-Jel before the weekend. I’ve never found a store that sells it and usually buy a bag online just as fall starts specifically for the purpose of making pie filling. Clear-Jel is cornstarch that has been modified to withstand the high temperatures that it is exposed to during the canning process without becoming cloudy or losing its thickening ability. So, no pie filling…yet.

So I did what any resourceful food preservation lover might and turned to my trusty Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and looked in the index under “apples.” An overwhelming number of recipes poured off of the page, but I was looking for something a bit simple. (I’ll tell you why later.) One recipe caught my eye and with only 4 essential ingredients it was a perfect project for the day:

Brandied Apple Rings

5 lbs. apples, cored and cut into ¼ inch rings, treated with lemon juice or citric acid to prevent browning.
3 cups water
4 cups sugar
1 cup brandy
Red food coloring (optional, but makes this look oh-so-pretty.)

-Bring sugar and water to a boil in a saucepan large enough to fit all of the apples. Boil sugar and water for 5 minutes.
-Remove from the heat and add the apples and food coloring. A few drops of food coloring is all you need. Let the mixture boil gently for 15 minutes or until the apples are tender.
-Again remove the pan from the heat and remove the apples from the syrup using a slotted spoon.
-Pack the apples loosely into clean, warm jars, leaving ½ inch headspace.
-Put the saucepan back on the heat and return the syrup to a boil for one minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy.
-Pour hot syrup over apples, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Tap the sides of the jars to remove air bubbles and then adjust the headspace if necessary.
-Wipe the rims of the jars clean and then place on the lids and screw on rings.
-Process jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

The apples are tasty warm, but I bet they are even better after sitting in that brandy-syrup for awhile. They are a lovely accompaniment to fall pork dishes and would also make a slightly more elegant strudel.

By the way, if you have syrup left over after filling the jars, put it back on the stove over medium heat and let it reduce to a thicker consistency. Add a few shakes of cinnamon and you’ll have a delicious topping for ice cream, waffles, cheesecake, or a spoon!

So, why did I go for a simple apple recipe over a more ingredient-heavy chutney, salsa, or multi-fruit jelly? I guess you’ll have to wait until I post about Project Ice Cream Layer Cake later this week… 😉

Ciao for now,


Boerewors: A Sausage-Making Adventure

10 Oct

I always like a culinary challenge, and this one was especially intriguing given that I really had no idea how the final product was supposed to taste. My boss was looking for a butcher in the area that would make a particular type of South African sausage when I piped up that I had a meat grinder. “What’s in it?”

He showed me a recipe and I consulted a few other resources online to get a sense of the cuts of meat used, seasoning blends, and meat to fat ratio. Once I felt like I had a better sense of the flavors, I settled on the ingredients for a batch.




3.5 lbs. beef chuck
1 lb. lamb shoulder
1 lb. pork shoulder
5 oz. pork fatback (salted)
3.5 oz. sheep casings
5 tbsp. malt vinegar
3 tbsp. coriander seeds, toasted and then ground.
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. ground pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice


First thing’s first: Soak your sausage casings. Sheep casings frequently come in tubs packed with salt and can be preserved that way in your fridge for almost a year with no negative consequence. Soak in water that starts at 110 degrees F. while you prepare your meat and spice blends (or at least 30 minutes).

The fatback will also require a pre-soak, but in a medium-sized saucepan with boiling water for about 5-7 minutes. This will remove some of the excess salt. After boiling, pull the fatback out of the water and refrigerate for a little bit to firm it up.

Dice the lamb, pork, beef, and fatback into small cubes.

In a small bowl, combine the coriander, salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Set aside.

Next, grind the meat using a coarse plate.

Now it’s time to add the spices and vinegar. Take care not to smash the meat together too much when mixing everything together.

Make yourself a small patty and fry it quickly to test the seasoning. Mine needed a few extras pinches of salt and another few grinds of pepper. Otherwise, it was delicious!

To stuff the sausage, I used the 5/8 in. tube attachment for my mixer’s grinder. Before getting the casing onto the tube, find the opening in the casing and run cool water down the length of it to remove any kinks that weren’t straightened out during the soaking process. Grease the tube with a little bit of vegetable shortening and then gently shimmy on the casing. Tie a knot at the end of the casing and you’re ready to stuff!

At this point, have a pin handy so that you can prick the casing if any major air pockets form.

With the mixer on a low speed, feed the seasoned meat into the hopper and through the tube. The casing should slide easily as the meat is fed into it. Do not overfill or you run the risk of tearing the casing or having it burst during cooking.

When you reach the end of the casing, leave 2 inches or so empty so that you can tie a knot to seal it off. Roll the sausage into spirals and prick with a pin all over to remove excess air.

Hypnotizing meat spiral…mmm.

So there you have it; my first foray into making boerewors. I’m really pleased with the final product and hope that the boss-man enjoys grilling it up as much as I enjoyed making it.

Ciao for now,

Mystery Food Week 19: Clown Box edition

6 Oct

My stomach and I are at war. I don’t know what I ever did to it, but it’s mad at me. Most of my delicious mystery food from last week had to go the preservation route, but I am absolutely not complaining about a freezer full of lunches. I did get around to making some delicious potato soup from the mountain of potatoes I accumulated and it’s been a lifesaver while I’m not feeling 100%. It’s also perfect for this lovely, brisk weather that has appeared out of nowhere. It’s not too heavy, but substantial enough for a meal:

Crock Pot Potato Soup

-12 small/medium potatoes (use the week 17 and 18 pictures for size reference.) They yielded about 6 cups diced.
-1 medium white or yellow onion, diced.
-3.5 cups of low sodium chicken stock. I like Kitchen Basics’ unsalted variety.
-3 cloves of garlic, minced.
-3 slices of bacon
-1 cup of 2% milk
-1.5 tsp. dried thyme
-A few shakes of cayenne pepper
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Green onions or chives to garnish

-Peel and quarter-inch dice your potatoes. If you too are sick with the stomach flu, have a friend drag a chair and your laptop into the kitchen so that you can sit and watch bad reality television like Hell’s Kitchen while you work. If you’re preparing them in advance, put the diced potatoes in a bowl and cover with cold water. This will keep them from turning gray.
-Dice the bacon and sauté it to render out most of the fat.
-Put the potatoes, chicken stock, bacon, thyme, pepper, and some salt into the crock pot and set it on high.
-Gently sauté the onions in the left over bacon fat (you may need to add a splash of olive oil) until translucent and fragrant. Add the garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes more. Add this to the crock pot and give everything a quick stir.
-Cook on high for 4 hours.
-Ladle half of the soup into a blender and add the milk. Blend until smooth. Add the puree back to the crock pot and cook for another ½ hour on low. (It should be simmering very gently.)
-Garnish with green onions and a few grinds of black pepper. Eat merrily.

Yield: Six 1 ½ cup servings

It’s so good. I confess, however, that by the end of the weekend I was really tired of the lack of solid food in my diet. I made cookies and justified it by saying that the inclusion of ginger (digestive aid!) and blackstrap molasses (iron!) made them an appropriate snack. And they’re perfect autumn cookies, best eaten alongside a strong cup of coffee.

Giant Gingersnap Cookies

-1 cup all-purpose flour
-2/3 cup sugar
-4 tbsp. unsalted butter
-1 egg
-2 tbsp. blackstrap molasses
-2 tsp. cinnamon
-1 tsp. ground ginger
-1/4 tsp. ground allspice
-1/4 tsp. baking soda
-1/4 tsp. salt
-A few grinds of black pepper (really amps up the spices)

-Pre heat an oven to 350 degrees F.
-Mix the flour, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, baking soda, salt, and pepper in a bowl and set aside.
-Cream the butter and ½ cup of the sugar (reserve the rest in a small bowl) until fluffy. Add the egg and molasses and mix well.
-Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until just combined.
-Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and drop the dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets. They will spread slightly, so only put 7 cookies on each sheet.
-Spray the bottom of a glass with non-stick cooking spray, dip in the bowl of reserved sugar and then flatten a mound of dough. Repeat for each cookie.
-Bake for approximately 13 minutes or until just set. The centers will still be slightly soft, but will firm up and be crunchy once cooled.
-Cool on a wire rack and then store in a sealed container for up to a week. But they won’t last that long.

Yield: 14 big wonderful cookies

Onto this week’s Mystery Food…I called this week the clown box edition for good reason. Items just kept coming out no matter how many times I reached into the box! Fantastic.

Salad greens, Rome apples, green bell peppers, a small eggplant, squash, potatoes, and a lovely pumpkin. I found a recipe for sweet spiced pumpkin pickles so I might give that a go. If I end up canning I might also use some of those beautiful Rome apples to make apple pie filling. A quart jar of pie filling is the perfect amount for a 9-inch pie.

I hope you enjoy this week’s recipes. I’m crossing my fingers that my stomach and I can form a peace treaty so that there will be apple-picking in the near future. What better way to celebrate autumn?

Ciao for now,


Mystery Food Week 18: Changing Seasons edition

1 Oct

Well autumn has definitely arrived. This week, I wore a jacket to work for the first time since the spring. We also went to the last Nationals home game of the season. I really like going to Nats games and I think that part of it is because it reminds me so much of going to Pirates games in Pittsburgh. (Ladies and gentlemen, you can get your “Haha, that’s because both teams are terrible, right?” jokes out of the way now.)

But in truth, I say that for several reasons. The parks are similarly designed—small, not steeply graded, and open on one side. There isn’t a bad seat in the house at either place. Then there’s the price-tag. Our seats Wednesday night were on the 1st baseline in the top section and I think we had the best view in the house–for $13. While I’ve seen the Steelers play down here at Fedex Field, I’ve never seen them play at Heinz Field. I did see the Penguins play at the Civic—excuse me, Mellon Arena, but I highly doubt my chances of getting into a game at the new arena for a long time. Tickets are difficult to get and often very pricey. Joe and I like to get to a Redskins game once or twice a season, but even if you grab a set of tickets they gouge you terribly for parking at Fedex. And, unlike the baseball stadium, there is no direct Metro access. You can see into Nats Park as soon as you come out of the Metro station—that’s my favorite part. I always start to get excited as soon as I see the stadium all lit up. Finally, there is the culinary joy of the ballpark. Pittsburgh has its Primanti’s sandwiches and Quaker Steak wings and DC has Ben’s Chili Bowl and Teddy’s BBQ (which includes a giant caricature of Teddy Roosevelt in chef regalia outside). We opted for the more traditional hot-dog-and-a-beer route on Wednesday, but the smell of the giant smoker with all of that tasty barbecue was wonderful! 

The ballgame ended with fireworks and a video of the players, announcers, and vendors saying “thank you” for a great season. All in all, not a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening. Now, I am officially, fully, and completely in fall sports mode.

This week’s Mystery Food is an interesting mix:
Cabbage, kale, green peppers, squash, zucchini, apples, and potatoes.
I’ve accumulated two weeks worth of potatoes now and this chilly weather encourages the making of some potato soup. My main issue with potato soup/potato cheese soup is that it’s either incredibly heavy and garnished with an ice cream scoop’s worth of sour cream and bacon, or it’s really one-note. I’ll try to strike a balance…maybe add some slow caramelized onions and roasted garlic and other veggies for color/sweetness. 

That will likely be this weekend’s project in between the ongoing writing of super-portfolio-thesis. Oooooh and maybe a loaf of fabulous no-knead effortless bread. Welcome, autumn. 🙂

Ciao for now,