Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dark Days Dinner #4 - Dec. 23rd - Venison Tenderloin and Potato Latkes

I'm a bit late in posting this  - the holidays have managed to keep me blissfully away from the computer for many days in a row now! I figure if I can at least write about one meal before making the next, I'll be doing all right...

This dinner really starts quite some time before last Thursday...

I've mentioned before that this fall was extraordinarily busy for me, but I did manage to get myself a hunting license and did sit out in the woods for a few hours opening morning of deer season back in November. My intention had been to get out with my bow again this year, but I didn't get in enough practice and so was not comfortable hunting that way (if I'm going to kill an animal for my food, I really do want to be sure I make it swift and painless as possible). After that though, I didn't get hunt at all until I returned from my California trip in mid December.

Long story short - I finally managed to get a deer just days before the end of the season, and this meal was of the tenderloins, to me the most prized pieces of meat on the animal.

With the venison (seasoned with just salt and pepper and cooked on the grill) I served an appetizer of a delightful 44-clove garlic soup (another Smitten Kitchen recipe you can get to here), steamed green beans and carrots, potato latkes (roughly based on this Smitten Kitchen recipe, but with the addition of the starch from the potato liquid) with homemade  yogurt and/or homemade applesauce for toppings, and a rhubarb pie (rhubarb from our garden) for dessert. With all this we drank another bottle of my father's home-made Merlot wine.

Doug's Mom is with us for the holidays and we had my parents over again to enjoy the meal, so we had a full and happy table.

How local was I / What did I learn?
  • I did use a few things that were not on my allowable exceptions list. 1) The garlic soup recipe said to serve it with parmasean cheese and lemon so I did, though neither were local. I think it would have been nearly as perfect without it so would leave this out if I did it again. 2) I ran out of time in my day so used a pie crust I had made and frozen a few weeks earlier that contained shortening and vinegar. 3) The rhubarb filling had sugar in it that was not in any way local. 4) Again the Merlot was home-made but the grape juice was not local.  I'm going to work on finding my own juice or grapes maybe from local vineyards for next year's batch(es)! 
  • Other than those things, I once again made the 50-mile radius for all the other foods I used.
  • I used the last of my home-made/local butter to cook the latkes and top the vegetables - we liked it so much that I'm sure I'll be making more.
  • I will make a lot more latkes next time because 1) we will clearly eat more than I plan on and 2) I think they'd make great leftovers (breakfast hashbrowns? yummm....).
Next week I think I may brave home made pasta, and I hope to write about my attempt at making ricotta cheese from my leftover whey, so stay tuned!

P.S.  If you're interested in reading more about the hunting and preparing of the meat, please feel free to read more here in a separate post. There are pictures though, so please consider yourself warned if you're not into that type of thing!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wrap Up

One great part of the Dark Days Challenge is that twice a month there are brief summaries with links to full write-ups posted on the Urban Hennery website. The summaries are grouped in batches of six to eight people each (randomly chosen, as far as I can tell), each written by a different volunteer, and I'm in "Group 3".

I can tell already that they're going to be a great source of inspiration and ideas!

Sadly, right now I need to go work on my Christmas inspiration.  I was so excited a few days ago, and now all of a sudden, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. Maybe going and doing a little tree-trimming and "wrapping up" of presents myself might help?!

The Bug's self portrait and documentation of tree-cutting.
Thanks Gra and Bobbin for the perfect Christmas tree at JUST the right price!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dark Days Dinner # 3: Friday Night Pizza

I know I said I'd try Mexican for Dark Days, but after some adventures in cheesemaking Thursday night, I decided to turn the traditional Friday Pizza Night with my parents into a Dark Days Challenge meal this week instead! 

The same dairy that I found had the heavy cream (see the DDC Week #2 post about butter), also sells just regular (pasturized) milk too. I'd made mozzarella once before, so the process was not totally new to me. This time though, I'd already committed to the meal, so I was really hoping I wouldn't mess it up! I wanted to make two batches to have plenty of cheese for two pizzas, so I did it in two batches.

The first seemed to go fine until I got to the heating/kneading/stretching phase, when I just couldn't get it to come together. I finally gave up on it and started the working on that stage of the second batch, which came out just fine, despite my seeming to do it exactly the same way as I'd done the first gallon of milk.

After that second round was done, in one last ditch effort, I put the first ball back in the microwave one more time. To my amazement and relief, the feel of it suddenly changed in my hands, and it passed from mushy to stringy in just seconds. All in all, I ended up with just over two pounds of mozzarella, and I hope to get a little ricotta out of the whey yet, but I will save that for another post.
Nonetheless, I'd still call it a cheese success, and it was pretty fun to make it happen.

Here are a few pictures from the process:  
Pot shots, from top to bottom: at about 100°, just after curds formed; after settling for twenty minutes, with curds now fully separated from the whey; scooping the curds out for the first heating. The ingredients in the very first photo include: salt, rennet, citric acid and milk. I trust the rest of the pictures are self explanatory!

The pizzas themselves were pretty basic. Both had sauce and cheese, and one had chorizo sausage and carmalized onions, and the other had bacon and pac choi. The pork was from pasture-grazed pigs, raised on and purchased from a farm on the other side of the lake. The pac choi was from Finger Lakes Fresh, a hydroponic greenhouse operation here in Ithaca that started at Cornell University but is now run by Challenge Industries. 

Both pizzas were really good, but at the end of the night, it was the sausage pizza that was nearly gone! I served them with cole slaw and my dad brought a bottle of his home made merlot, which "paired" perfectly with the pizza! We finished the meal by frosting the first batch of Christmas cookies of the year, made with decidedly, sadly, non-local ingredients (but they too were quite tasty, I have to admit!).

Here's a quick run down of how I did all this.  The mozzarella was basically from Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal Vegetable Miracle, which is from the New England Cheese Making Company. I adapted that recipe a little to add some settling time, which I just gleaned from a few other online sources. My pizza dough and sauce are adapted from Cook's Illustrated, and the dressing on the slaw was from the Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home cookbook.

Mozzarella Cheese
Heat 1 gallon milk slowly to 55° F, stirring to keep from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Add 1 1/2 tsp citric acid (dissolved in 1/4c cool water) and stir gently.
Continue heating to 88°, and add rennet (in my case, 1/4 tsp dissolved in 1/4c water), and stir in an up and down motion. Continue heating to just over 100°.
Turn off the heat, cover, and let curds sit 20 minutes.
Cut curds in pieces, scoop out into a microwaveable bowl.
Heat curds 1 minute, then press and knead to release any more whey.
Repeat heating/kneading/pouring off whey process (in 30-35 second intervals) 2-3 more times (or in my case 4-5!).
Add salt toward the end of this process (about 3/4 tsp was about right for my taste).
By the last heating, your cheese is supposed to be getting smoothe and stretchy (mine never really did get smooth...).
Shape and eat when cool, or refridgerate sealed for later use.

Pizza Dough
3 c. all purpose flour
1 c. whole wheat flour
2 1/4 tsp yeast
1 tsp salt
1 3/4 cup warm water
2 Tblsp olive oil
Mix flour, yeast and salt.  Mix water and oil, and add to dry ingredients.  Mix well, then pour out onto floured board. Knead 5-7 minutes, adding more flour as needed to keep from sticking.  Let rise about 1 hour. Divide in two, flatten and shape to ~ 13" rounds, letting rest for 5 minutes part way through if needed.

Pizza Sauce
32 oz jar canned tomatoes, drained
2 cloved garlic, crushed
2 Tblsp olive oil
1 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Blend all ingredients in food processor.  Cook if desired, but I often use just as-is.

Cole Slaw
1/2 head napa cabbage, shredded
4 large carrots, shredded
1 small onion, shredded
Combine and mix with dressing of choice

Tofu-Basil Dressing
1/2 block tofu
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tblsp apple cider vinegar
2+ Tblsp orange or apple juice
2+ Tblsp chopped fresh basil
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard

What I learned / How local was I?
  • As I thought the last time I did this, the cheese was good, but a bit tougher than I expected. I wonder if I "knead" too much? I assume that you knead until it changes consistency and the curds stick together, but maybe it's the heat, not the kneading that causes that change and I'm overworking the curds? On the other hand, I did read that over-heating can cause the curds to not stay together also, so I'm at a bit of a loss.
  • Also, the cheese did not melt the way "normal" mozz melts. It softened, but never got at all stringy, not even in the limited way that commercial fresh mozzarella does.  Not sure what I did wrong there.
  • I tried cooking the pizzas on a stone for the first time, but was not very successful. I think I need a peel (and some pointers, if anyone has any?).
  • All my local foods were again within 50 miles ("tier 1"), but I did have quite a few items that were beyond my exception list that were not local at all: apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, orange juice, Dijon mustard, yeast (purchased from a local flour mill, but I have no idea where it's really "from"), rennet and the citric acid.
    • I'd like to learn to make vinegar (I'm told if I let my Kombucha go too far I'll get vinegar!), so I'm going to look into this one.
    • I'm also going to look into growing mustard next summer and try my hand at my own mustard sauces.

So that's it for week #3. Next week Doug's Mom will be visiting for the holidays, so I'll need to come up with something extra special to make her! I'm thinking either the Mexican theme, or maybe I'll try my hand at fresh pasta? Mmm...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dark Days Dinner #2: Fresh Gnocci

I probably over did it a bit with the camera this time around, but it was so great to be home with my boys and back in the kitchen again after a week travelling , I just couldn't help it.  While in San Diego, I didn't get nearly as much Mexican food in my system as I'd hoped, and the hotel food I did get was tasty, but not exactly "light" fare. I had the desire to make up for it last night with a home-made meal.

I went with Italian rather than Mexican, but now that I think of it, I might have to add an attempt at "local" Mexican at some point this winter!  This week though I wanted to try gnocci.  I had all those potatoes that I bought for last week's meal and wanted to be sure to do something with them before they started sprouting. I've helped others make gnocci before, but never have attempted it solo. The time had come.

First though, I knew I wanted the sauce for those little potato pillows to be butter, not oil based.  I finally found a source of somewhat affordable local heavy cream, got out the beaters, sat the little Bug down beside me and got to mixing.  Exactly 22 minutes later, we had the most tasty butter we'd ever had.  Doug put it well when he described the every-day Wegmans' butter we usually eat as tasting like margarine next to the fresh stuff!  It was sure easy, but I'm still looking for a cheaper source of cream before making this something we do all the time.

Here's photo smörgåsbord number one for the week:

The butter making process.  I started with four cups of cream and much to my suprise and delight, ended with a full pound of butter (yes, I tared my scale first!).

With that done, I moved on to the gnocci. 
I followed the recipe from Deb at one of my favorite cooking blogs:

Bake 2 lbs potatoes at 425° for about 45 minutes
Allow potatoes to cool until you can handle them (or just handle them any way, but exclaim "yipes - ouch - oook - ow" repeatedly while working as I did)
Peel and mash through the large holes of a standard cheese grater.
Mix in one slightly beaten egg and one teaspoon salt.
Stir in up to 1 1/2 c flour until dough is handlable.
Turn out on lightly floured counter and knead (like bread) 3-4 minutes.
Break dough into four balls, roll each into a rope 3/4" thick.
Cut into 1" long pieces (and supposedly then mark lines in them using either the tongs of a fork or the edge of a wisk - neither of these worked well for me, so I skipped this step!).
Boil in salted water until they start to float, then cook one minute more.

You could eat them just like that, but since I had all that great butter right there calling out to me, I went on to saute them until browned, then topped them with a sauce of:

Sauted Butter, Garlic, Onion, Sage and Tomatoes, then topped them with fresh (local!) basil and a sprinkling of grated Romano cheese.

Oh yes, and served it all up with a bottle of our home-brewed hoppy porter.

YUMMM.  Here's photo smörgåsbord number two for you:

A Polack's first attempt at home-made gnocci, with a little help from the peanut gallery!

What I learned / how local was I?:
  • The original recipe said to add only as much flour as absolutely needed, or the gnocci will become tough.  I think I erred on the side of too cautious and could really have added closer to the full called for amount rather than just the 1 cup that I did. They were good, but maybe just a bit too quick to fall apart.  I think just a bit more flour would have helped that.
  • I stayed within my 50-mile ring again this week, with the only exception that I hadn't previously listed being the cheese.  It was just too good to not finish off with something like the nice bite of a good Romano!
  • Our home brew supplies were not local, but at least we made it ourselves!
So there we have it - week number two. I think for next time my goal will be to include a dessert with our meal!  Anyone have any suggestions?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dark Days Dinner #1: Eggs In A Nest

Dinner tonight was the first meal I cooked for the Dark Days Challenge, and it came just in the nick of time.  The snow arrived for real for the first time yesterday, and though one never can tell around here, it might just stick for the long haul. Up until now, I've been diligently covering my swiss chard nearly every night, nursing it along so we'd have some to eat as long as possible. Today, with fingers freezing, I picked all that was left.

Of course, I realized after the fact that a good story-telling shot would have been one of the garden with the colored stalks of chard lightly blanketed in snow and ice, but my neophyte blogger-hood shines through and I took no such photo.  Here's a few shots though of the last of out beautiful dark greens from the garden that we'll eat this year, once safely inside the house!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I think in this first post I'm supposed to lay down the ground rules I hope to follow for these next months of this cooking challenge. I've written a couple times now on how I want to define local. At the risk of confusing people, I do think I'll stick with my 4 tier program of trying to eat as "local" as possible, but allowing things to go as far as 200 miles from my home here in Lansing, NY if need be. 

My "exceptions" to the local food tag will include:
  • Olive Oil (I do go through a lot of this though, so in a sense it's a really bad choice to have be an exemption.  I'll try to be more conscious of my use of it, I swear!)
  • Herbs and Spices, including Salt and Pepper (When I can find a local source I'll use it, but there are times when you just can't work around not having them! My herbs did awful this last year, so I'm ashamed to say that I'll also be using dried this winter.  Next year I'll be more careful!)
  • Coffee (I am a believer that the best finish to a good meal is a cup of coffee, and until someone starts growing beans in Central NY, I'll be an importer. I will try however to start buying coffee from a local roaster, if I can find one that has a decent espresso bean!)
  • Chocolate (Do I need to explain this one?)
  • All Purpose Flour (I've found some local sources of most of my other flours, and there IS a local mill nearby who said their All Purpose Flour is "mostly" from grains grown in NY, but they were unable to give me a real number, so I'll just state here that it's milled locally, and might in part by local grains, but likely not 100% "local".)
As  general rule, I chose local before I chose organic, and even though I'll be eating things grown in the garden this summer, they aren't totally organic.  I did have to spray my tomatoes for the blight, and though I didn't preserve any of them, the soil would have spray on it from the zucchini too (to keep down the growth of powdery mildew).

Oh, and I feed my chickens a feed that's milled just 10 miles from here and has local grown corn in it, but it's not organic.

OK.  There's that taken care of.  Now, back to the chard.

The idea for tonight's meal was adapted from Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Here's what I did:

Diced potatoes, drizzled them in olive oil and sprinkled them with Montral Steak Seasoning (Montreal ALMOST makes the 200 mile radius cutoff, though somehow I doubt they really make it there any more!), and baked them at 375° on a baking sheet until crispy.  The potatoes are grown at and purchesed from a farm about 10 miles from here.

Then, the main dish was onions (from my garden), garlic (from my father's garden, about five miles away), and sun dried tomatoes (from my garden), sauteed until tender.  Then I added a huge pile of chopped swiss chard, and cooked it down until just softened.  Finally, I made six little holes in the chard, cracked an egg  in each (from our backyard chickens), covered the pan, and cooked it on low for four minutes.

This week, we managed a "tier 1 meal", with everything we ate produced within (less than!) 50 miles.

I know, It sounds really simple, but it tasted extraordinary, if I do say so myself! The eggs were perfect - just runny enough to be a dipping sauce for the potatos and chard, and the little bits of tomato in the chard made it savory enough that you almost thought you were eating bacon.  The potatoes were tender and somehow more flavorful than the last batch I made.

Of course, it was after ten PM when we ate, so it could be we were just hungry.

We topped the meal off with a bottle of our home-made San Giovese wine (don't be fooled by the label on the bottle - we just didn't manage to remove the old one!).  The grape juice was not local (I think probably shipped in from CA to a distributor in Syracuse), but we made and bottled it ourselves, so it "felt" local!

Things I'd do differently next time:
  1. Cut back on the oil by making my own butter. Unfortunately, I've yet to find a source of local whole cream.  I can find milk, even raw milk, but I'm still looking for cream.  Hard to believe given the number of dairy farms around here, but I guess that's what we get with the big dairy conglomerations. I'm excited to try my own butter though so hopefully in future weeks I'll get to write to you about that!
  2. Use my own herbs on the potatoes. Although I love the taste of the Montreal Steak Seasoning, I probably could have dug through the snow and managed to salvage some sage and chives to on the potatoes.  One slap on my hand for laziness in just the first week. Shame on me.
So we're off and running, and both my husband and I really enjoyed week one. I'll be travelling for work all next week, but hopefully I'll be able to pull something together before the end of the first reporting period for meal number two!

-- Wendy