Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Cultured Butter

Back in the 1930's when my mother was a baby, my maternal grandparents briefly owned a creamery in Denver. They made butter, ice cream--all the usual suspects for a creamery. At some point, they gave it up to move to Los Angeles, where my Poppa returned to his trade as a milliner. Given that women stopped wearing hats whenever they went out, he moved on from that, too. But that's another story.

Now you'd think with a creamery background in my family and a grandmother who loved to teach me how to cook, I'd have been raised learning how to make butter and other dairy products. But no. Clearly, she left that part of her history firmly in Denver. Not only did it never really enter into the family lore, until fairly recently it had never occurred to me to make my own. But then I fell hard for Brittany butter, sweet and just slightly crunchy from sea salt. I realized that commodity butter wasn't going to cut it for me any more.

A few months ago I poked around and found instructions for butter making--really easy ones (but not involving shaking a jar). I tried it and found I loved the results.

Of course, once you start... and so I had to try making cultured butter. Cultured butter has a tangy, more layered taste than regular butter. And it really comes alive when you take the time to culture it yourself. All that involves is adding the culture to the cream in a bowl and letting it sit at room temperature for from eight to 24 hours, covered. You can purchase the culture from cheese-making stores or you can simply add a couple of tablespoons of yogurt, which is what I did.

Now where regular butter takes little effort and a very short time to make, cultured butter requires little effort but many hours of waiting. Kind of like making bread, but without the kneading. But if you're not in a hurry, this is makes an ├╝ber version of butter that you'll want to try.

As with all recipes with limited ingredients, the few used for making cultured butter have to be really really good. So, be sure to use organic unpasteurized heavy cream or whipping cream, high quality yogurt, and, if you're going to add salt, very good flaky sea salt.

To start you'll mix together the cream and yogurt in a bowl, cover the bowl with a towel and leave it to sit on the counter at room temperature for at least 12 hours. Ideally room temperature is in the 70s. It should get thick like sour cream and a little bubbly. It should smell clean. If it smells funky, toss it and try again.

Once it reaches the right consistency, refrigerate it for an hour. You can leave it in longer if you don't have time to make it immediately. I left mine in the fridge overnight, then took it out the next morning and left it for an hour to come back to room temperature before making the butter.

Now the way I make it is in the blender. And what I've learned by using my Vitamix is that you have to rein in your impulse to whip the cream on high. Instead, don't even move the dial from the lowest speed. It's fast enough to do the job of spurring the cream and yogurt mixture from thick to chunky.

Once you have some good sized chunks, stop. Let the mixture rest and separate. The liquid you get is buttermilk and it's delicious. Don't toss it but do drain it into a container and save it for baking muffins or making buttermilk dressing or however you like to use buttermilk.

Now you're going to wash the butter to remove any remaining remnants of buttermilk since that will make it spoil faster. There are different ways to do it. You can squeeze it by hand. You could pull out the chunks of butter, place them in cheesecloth in a bowl and pour ice water over them and press the butter into the ice water so that the water turns cloudy--and repeat this several times until the water is clear. Or you can make life easier for yourself with a trick I learned from The Kitchn--add cold water to the butter chunks in the blender bowl and pulse a few times. Let the mixture sit until the water separates from the butter. It'll be cloudy. Pour it out, being sure to use a slotted spoon or spatula to keep the butter in the bowl. Repeat a couple more times until the water is mostly clear. Move around those chunks at the bottom near the blades where water accumulates so you can drain it all out.

Now if you want to salt your butter, this is the time. Add just a scant quarter teaspoon of your sea salt to the blender bowl with the butter and pulse a few times to mix it in. Taste and make sure you have enough. If not, add just a bit more. Pulse again.

That's it. Scoop the butter into a bowl, cover, and refrigerate. Alternately, you can shape it into a log, using plastic wrap and refrigerate it. It should be good for about three weeks in the fridge or up to three months in the freezer. If you want to make regular butter, there's no waiting, simply pour a pint of the heavy cream into the blender bowl and follow the instructions above.

Cultured Butter
Adapted from The Kitchn
(printable recipe)

1 pint organic, unpasteurized heavy cream or whipping cream
2 tablespoons yogurt
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (optional)

1. Whisk together the cream and yogurt in a bowl. Cover with a clean towel and let sit on the counter for 12 hours. Check to see if the mixture has thickened to a sour cream-like consistency and has formed bubbles on the top. If so, it's ready. If not, give it some more time. When it's ready, place it in the refrigerator to chill for an hour.
2. Bring the mixture to room temperature for an hour. This helps it separate into pieces faster. Then place in the bowl of a blender. At low speed, blend the cream-yogurt mixture for a minute or two until it it forms into chunks. That's your butter.
3. Let the butter chunks separate from the liquid, which is buttermilk. At that point, pour off the buttermilk for another use.
4. Add enough cold water to the butter in the blender bowl just to cover. Now you're washing the butter. Pulse three times. The water will be cloudy. Pour it off. Repeat two or more times until the water is relatively clear. Make sure you remove all the water.
5. Add salt now if you want. Pulse again a few times to make sure it's well mixed. Taste to see if you need to add more salt.
6. Scoop out the butter and place it in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerate--or shape it into a log using plastic wrap and refrigerate. It should be good for a few weeks. It can also be frozen for up to three months.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Chilled Melon Blueberry Soup

Melons are just coming into season and none too soon. They're so refreshing when the heat of summer bears down on us. Over the next few months wave after wave of intriguing varieties will become available and it's worth going to a farmers market or Specialty Produce to discover something other than your standard cantaloupe or honeydew to enjoy.

For instance, in June I brought home a small, fragrant Rocky Sweet Melon grown by Munak Ranch. The flesh is green like a honeydew but the flavor is more like a cross between a honeydew and cantaloupe. It's very juicy and sweet and tastes even better when it's been chilled.

Because it's so juicy I thought it would make a terrific chilled soup and mulled over what flavors to add to it. Usually I gravitate toward ginger because the sharpness is a nice contrast to the sugary melon. But this time I thought I'd reach for some strong herbs in my garden--Mexican tarragon and basil--and see how they would work, and I'd add some acidity with lime juice. I also had a pint of blueberries that had languished in my refrigerator. Since they go wonderfully with melons I figured I'd add them, too. All of these would be encased in a base of yogurt.

That was pretty much it. These soups are ridiculously simple to make if you have a blender or food processor. Simply dump all the ingredients in the bowl and puree. Yes, I mince the herbs. You don't have to since they're going into the blender but I don't want to risk them not being evenly chopped up and distributed. Then taste what you have and make adjustments. I found myself adding more basil than I thought would work but it still wasn't quite there. Then I had a little blip of an idea. Salt.

I added just a pinch and that's all that was needed to push the flavors forward. The soup doesn't taste at all salty; just makes the herbal flavors more assertive.

Let the soup sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours so the mix of flavors melds. Then enjoy this refreshing vibrant summer soup.

Chilled Melon Blueberry Soup
(printable recipe)
Yield: 3 1/2 cups

1 1/2 cups melon
1/2 cup blueberries
2 tablespoons basil leaves, minced
1 teaspoon Mexican tarragon, minced
Juice of 1 lime
1 cup plain yogurt
Pinch kosher salt

Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a blender or food processor. Puree. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate for two hours before serving.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Best Sandwich I Ever Made

Here it is the 4th of July and I'm sitting at my desk still salivating over the memory of a sandwich I made around Memorial Day. I had a real crud of a cold and hadn't gone to the market in awhile so I was left to forage around my fridge and freezer for something for lunch one day that seemed appetizing. What I ended up with was--to me--the best sandwich I'd ever made. Perfect bread--just
lightly toasted. Inside, a sublime mix of flavors and textures just from vegetables, herbs, spices, goat cheese, and oil and vinegar. You know how sometimes you pull together all the right ingredients and take a bite that, huh, lets you down because something's missing? Not this one. I got this totally right. I wanted to linger over it to savor what I'd created. And then make it again.

What I had was a Bread & Cie ciabatta roll I found in the freezer, a red onion, a package of goat cheese, and my favorite Italian marinated eggplant I had made a week or so earlier. I've written about this eggplant dish in the past. I've been making the recipe from Gourmet magazine since 2002 and it's never dated. It's sharp and garlicky from white wine vinegar and, well, garlic, all bathed in olive oil with a hint of oregano and a sharp hit of heat from crushed red peppers. I add it to pasta sauce. I slather good sourdough bread with it. And now, apparently, I add it to sandwiches. It's divine.

Then I remembered that among the bag of provisions my sweet mom had dropped off for me (including magnificent chicken soup with matzoh balls) was a package of roasted red peppers. Her reasoning was that the peppers were filled with vitamin C so she roasted several for me. I had plopped them in a container and covered them with olive oil and a wonderfully dark aromatic aged Spanish vinegar, Vinegar Viejo de Montilla, I had bought at Vom Fass Hillcrest. So it had a day or two of marinating already.

I didn't see how I could go wrong with this combination of ingredients, but neither did I realize how sublime it would actually be.

To put it together, slice the ciabatta roll in half horizontally and lightly toast or grill the halves. This will help give it structure once you add the oil-laden red peppers and eggplant.

Place a couple of slices of the red peppers on the bottom slice of the roll so the oil can coat the bread. Then add a couple of tablespoons of the Italian marinated eggplant, then the red onion slice. Drizzle the top slice of the roll with some of the oil from the eggplant and then spread the goat cheese over it. Place that on the onion slice. Now you have your sandwich. Slice in half and eat carefully over a plate, napkin at the ready. It's juicy!

Italian Marinated Eggplant
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 cups

I've had this same recipe from Gourmet since August 2002. It really should be called Pickled Eggplant since boiling the eggplant in white wine vinegar takes it to a whole other dimension. It came from one of Gourmet's readers on its "Sugar and Spice" page. Gourmet later published another version of this from the staff but honestly it's not nearly as good. The little changes in proportions they made didn't serve the flavor at all. So, I'm sticking with this and I hope you try it. Not only do I drain it and enjoy on a crusty piece of bread or toasted pita, I often add it to tomato sauces for flavoring. Enjoy the oil, too! 

1 1/2 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into 3 X 1/4-inch sticks
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 cups white wine vinegar
2 cups water
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or crushed red pepper flakes)
About 1 1/2 cups olive oil

1. Toss eggplant with salt and drain in a colander set over a bowl, covered, at room temperature 4 hours. (Eggplant will turn brown.) Discard liquid in bowl.

2. Gently squeeze handfuls of eggplant to remove excess liquid.

3. Bring vinegar and water to a boil in a 3- to 4-quart nonreactive saucepan. Add eggplant and boil, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain in colander, then set colander over a bowl and continue to drain eggplant, covered and chilled, 2 hours more. Discard liquid in bowl.

4. Gently squeeze handfuls of eggplant to remove excess liquid, then pat try with paper towels.

5. Stir together eggplant, garlic, oregano, pepper, and 1 cup oil in a bowl. Transfer to a 1-quart jar with a tight-fitting lid and add enough olive oil to just cover eggplant. Marinate eggplant, covered and chilled, at least 4 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving. Scoop eggplant out of jar with a fork to drain excess oil. Marinated eggplant keeps up to 1 month.

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