Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ricotta Made at Home

Here are my basic precepts for sustainable food:

1. Make as much of it as you can yourself, from scratch.

2. Use either food you grow yourself, or is grown near you, as much as possible.

3. Use recognizable real food, not mixes or partially prepared mixes. (This is what "from scratch" means.)

So, although it is possible to buy ricotta cheese from the dairy case, I'd rather make it myself.  This has to be the simplest cheese in the world to make.  It can be used in many ways, including cheesecake, macaroni and cheese, and especially in homemade lasagna.

There are two ways ricotta is made.  If you are already a cheesemaker and like to make mozzarella at home, the leftover whey can be made into ricotta.  (This is a different recipe.)  But I like to make it from whole milk.  We don't have it that often, so why not have the best?  It can be made from skim or fat-reduced milk, but we now know that butterfat is actually good for you, containing omega-3 acids.  And whole milk ricotta is so delicious.

We are fortunate here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to have an old-fashioned family dairy nearby. Not only do they sell milk that is minimally processed and in glass bottles, it is possible to obtain their non-homogenized milk, with a cream head. But if you can't get that, even supermarket homogenized whole milk makes a very nice ricotta.

You need some citric acid.  Ricotta is made by acidifying milk and heating it.  This causes the protein to coagulate and make curds.  Some people use lemon juice or vinegar, but to my taste these impart a flavor.  Citric acid is a simple, pure, crystalline organic acid that can be found in shops who cater to brewmasters or picklemakers (or cheesemakers).

Here are the proportions of citric acid to be used.  Dissolve the powder in water before adding it to the milk.

1 gallon milk            1 teaspoon citric acid         1/4 cup water
1/2 gallon milk        1/2 teaspoon citric acid     2 tablespoons water

Place the milk in a nonreactive pan (stainless steel is good) and mix in the citric acid solution.  Heat the milk, with occasional stirring, to 185-195 F°.  An instant-read thermometer is very useful for this. DO NOT let the milk boil or scorch, but watch it constantly. When it reaches temperature, turn off the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes.

Pour the whey and curds into a colander lined with butter muslin (a fine-textured cheesecloth).  If you don't have the cheesecloth, a clean "flour sack" type tea towel will probably work.  After the whey has drained (a few minutes), the ricotta can be released by folding the cloth gently, and placed into a bowl for refrigeration until used.  It should be used within a few days.

A half gallon of milk makes about 3/4 pound of ricotta.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lemon Ice Cream (with Mango Instructions)

For languid summer feasts, the best thing is a very simple and luxurious dessert.  This classic freezer ice cream takes almost no time to assemble, and is always eaten in respectful silence.  It requires no special equipment.  Because of the high cream content, there is no crystallization and an ice cream machine is not needed.  Just pour the mix into a cake pan and place into a freezer for a couple of hours.

As an additional touch, fresh mango fruit (which is obviously not local to North America, but is frequently fresh and widely available in the late summer) may be sliced and placed on each serving.  I do not advise sugar or any other addition to the fruit.  My husband has published a full description of the method for peeling a mango on his blog, from which this illustration is lifted.

Freezer Lemon Ice Cream

2 cups whipping cream
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T grated lemon zest

Mix and pour into an 8" square cake pan.  Freeze for a couple of hours, till solid.

This is best eaten on the same day but can be kept frozen for a few days.

It is just as good (and some would say better) when lime is substituted for the lemon.

Monday, August 25, 2014

How Green Was My Pepper

Whether you source your summer vegetables from a CSA, the farmers' market, or your own garden, there comes a time when you are faced with a bumper crop of green bell peppers.  Eventually these big babies will ripen into red sweet peppers, or into another color.  Ripened bells are beloved by most.  I've written several posts on the preparation and use of roasted and peeled red peppers and of course sweet ripe red peppers are appreciated in salads and other dishes.

But as has been acknowledged even by the writers of the New York Times food section, green peppers are another matter.  We think so little of them here that I have often offloaded the end of season bounty on friends and neighbors.

Still, they are what is now.  And they do have some use in selected dishes.  This is the time of year that I pull out an old standby, from a cookbook that is also an old standby.  I received my copy of the I Hate To Cook Book at about the same time as my original copy (1964 edition) of the Joy of Cooking.  While I read Joy cover to cover (it was my first cooking course), I probably made a great many more meals from Hate To Cook over the first several years of my marriage.  There was no stigma in cooking from cans at the time.  (That was the form in which most food was sold.)  Also, I was a student with little time or money for fancy cooking.  The book has now been reissued and its author, Peg Bracken, has now been acknowledged as a figure of cooking history in her own right.  I'm still using some of the recipes from the book.  For one thing, they don't all involve creamed canned soup.  For another thing, they are invariably easy and tasty.

This casserole uses up a whole green pepper!  It goes well with some fresh sautéed vegetables like summer squash and a crisp salad from seasonal greens.  I made mine with a locally produced pork sausage, very sustainable.

Note: the recipe calls for "pork sausage".  You'll want bulk sausage for this.  But bulk sausage comes with various seasonings included.  Mine has sage and crushed red pepper.  If you use unseasoned ground pork instead, the results may vary slightly.

Dr. Martin's Mix

Slightly modified from The I Hate To Cook Book, by Peg Bracken

Using a stove-to-oven pan (enameled cast iron is my choice), crumble and brown 1 pound bulk sausage.  If excessive fat is produced, pour some off.

1 green pepper, chopped
2 scallions, chopped
2-3 celery stalks, chopped
2 cups chicken broth (homemade or commercial)
1 cup uncooked long-grain rice
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
(if using unseasoned sausage), black pepper

Mix, cover, and cook in a 300° oven for one hour.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Joy of Compost

Left corner: my first compost pile, 1972
One of the joys of being a home gardener is the participation in the cycle of life, from starting seeds to recycling all that garden produce into compost.  What is compost?  The product of the breakdown of organic materials by microbes. Composting has become a major industrial method of disposing of unwanted organic materials.  It can take on a highly technical aspect.  But home composting by gardeners is to industrial composting as home vegetable gardens are to corn monoculture.  In the home garden, it not only disposes of old leaves and overripe squash, but makes a lovely product that enhances soil and plant productivity. Soil scientists all concur that addition of organic material is the universal cure-all for soils (except peaty or "muck" soils, which are almost entirely organic matter).  Finished compost is high in humus, which alters the physical characteristics of soil for better nutrient availability and water percolation.

Compost can be used in many different ways.  It can and should be dug into the soil at planting.  It can be mixed with garden soil for potting purposes.  It is a very successful topdressing around established plants. When applied to the soil surface, it will be integrated into the soil over time and create a more friable soil.  In the shorter term, it makes an attractive mulch and will help to retard weed establishment.
Compost used as mulch

Note that they are empty.
There are as many ways to make a home composting operation as there are to make homemade lasagna.  I knew a gardener who made little chickenwire cages (about a foot wide and a couple of feet high) that were hidden behind shrubs.  She put garden scraps in those over time, then forgot about them.  A year later she took apart the wire to harvest a tiny pile of compost.  Some people make a huge heap of everything in the back corner and then turn it over once a year to get at the decomposed part. Others buy a plastic compost container or even a compost tumbler.  (I suspect that these often fall into disuse.)  Many gardening books and articles show elaborate constructions of three wooden bins. I've never understood how this can be successfully managed. They should not be regarded as necessary to home composting.

The system I use is cheap and flexible.  It is ordinary wire garden fencing made into temporary bins. (For people of average height, about 4 feet high works well.)  In the fall the bins can be expanded to hold fallen leaves, and as the new growing season begins, the fencing is wrapped more tightly into smaller bins.  They are not anchored and the bins can even be rolled up tightly for storage.  The compost can be turned frequently (a compost pitchfork is best) and the area can be raked in between uses.

What has to be achieved in a home compost pile is to allow the plant materials to decompose rapidly without excessive odor.  Woody materials must be run through a shredder if they are to be added. Other plant parts will benefit from cutting into smaller lengths or chopping by hand into pieces (squash or other large fruit or tubers).  Roots will not usually compost.  Don't add diseased plants to a home compost pile, and no really weedy material that has seed pods. I strongly suggest that plant material is all that should ever go into the pile.  No animal parts.  Definitely no animal feces, including manure (that can be composted separately).  In this comprehensive study of compost odors you'll note that the really bad stinks (those characteristic of putrefaction) derive from animal sources.  Ammonia is a common problem in home compost piles (from degradation of high-nitrogen tissues like grass clippings) and fatty acids like butyric acid (detectable at low concentrations!) are noticeable when anaerobic bacteria take over (too wet, too little oxygen).  It helps to understand that a compost pile is a little ecosystem. For details, here is this overview of microbial succession, but the point is that different bacteria and actinomycetes come and go through the process and the system needs to support them.  In a very real sense, what you have is a fermentation reactor and like such a reactor, you need to have the proper substrate and environmental conditions to make it work.

Moisture:  The mixture should not be too wet (so it needs good drainage) or too dry.  If it is too wet, anaerobic conditions result and you will get odor and clumping.  If too dry, the pile won't work and you may even see blue or green mold, a bad sign.  Often plant materials are sufficiently wet, but a sprinkle with a watering can between layers is usually a good idea.
Oxygen:  Aeration is critical.  The beneficial microbes involved in composting are engaged in active metabolism and will use up the available oxygen quickly.  Then the process will shut down.  This is why commercial composting operations turn the compost in windrows daily.  Turning the pile at least once every couple of weeks during active composting is a good idea, and good exercise too.
Temperature: It is perfectly okay to add materials to a compost pile when it is cold, but don't expect anything.  The pile will operate best within a range of  120-140° F internal temperature and the air temperature will affect that.  The process will be most active in summer temperatures.  If the pile is kept moist and turned frequently when it has the right nutrients, it should be at least pleasantly warm in the center.
Layer the "greens and browns".
Nutrients:  A mixture of high-carbon (fall leaves, straw) and high-nitrogen (green plant material) is needed.  Too much nitrogen, you'll get ammonia.  Too little, nothing happens. It is not necessary to be too precise about this, except that too many grass clippings really will be hard to manage.  It is better to add continuously than to store green material.

All this effort occurs fairly automatically during the gardening year.  You'll notice that after a time, the total volume has been reduced and new material is not decomposing very fast.  This is a good time to quit adding material.  Turn a pile once more, adding moisture, then let it sit.  By the fall, you should have compost.

Finished compost
The compost can be stored over the winter in its bins.  (Be wary of leaving it for too long under trees, especially maples - their roots will grow up into it.)  If you have perennial beds, they will appreciate a nice topdressing before winter.  Finished compost should not look like any of its original constituents, but partially finished compost (leaves still discernable) can still be used as mulch.  If you have a garden storage area, try keeping finished compost in buckets or trash bins over the winter.  It'll be usable in the spring before an outside bin has thawed.

If you want to have an even finer texture for the finished compost (to use, for example, in a potting medium, or as part of a fertilizer mixture), it can be put through a riddle.  This will remove odd bits of twig and bark.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Dill Bread of Summer

Bouquet dill is one of the most welcome sights of midsummer.  Its exuberant flowers are cheerful, whether as volunteers in a flower bed or in the vegetable garden.  And it is one of my favorite herbs.

Of course dill is famous for fish, chilled cucumber salad or soup, and in pickles.  But I especially look for it so that I can bake dill bread.

This recipe is a survivor from an era when no-knead batter breads were popular.  It contains cottage cheese, whose protein gives the bread structure without heavy kneading.  But I knead it anyway.

The bread should be made to serve hot, along with a summer meal that might include corn on the cob, a grilled meat, probably a cold salad or grilled summer vegetables and perhaps some sliced tomatoes. Its frank opulence offsets those simple elemental flavors (don't skip the butter for the hot bread). Leftover bread can be toasted the next day and served as a tea bread or snack.

Many market gardeners and supermarkets feature the variety known as dukat dill, which resists flowering and provides a long supply of the fresh dill leaves.  But in my experience these have a milder (duller) flavor than the ferny foliage of the bouquet dill.  You'll need to pick the leaves before seedheads begin to form and the leaves start to yellow.  I like the strong flavor of the bouquet dill and include lots of it in the bread.

Cottage Cheese Dill Bread

Dissolve one measure* of instant dry yeast in 1/4 cup warm water.

Mix 1 t salt, 1/4 t baking soda, 2 T sugar and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour.  Set aside.

In a saucepan (low heat), melt together 1 cup of creamed cottage cheese (not low-fat) and 1 T butter.  Let cool in pan after combined.

Combine the cooled cheese mixture with the yeast, the dry ingredients, and

1 egg
2 T (or more) chopped onion
2 T (or more) chopped fresh dill

Mix in approximately 2 cups more flour.   Turn onto floured board and knead briefly to combine flour and wet mixture, adding flour as necessary.  The objective is not to knead aggressively as for breads that depend on gluten for structure, but to combine flour and produce a dough that can be handled.  Place in a buttered bowl and let rise for 45 minutes.

Butter a casserole or loaf pan.  (An oval casserole can make an attractive loaf for the table.) Punch down the dough and place into the pan to let rise another 30 minutes or until bread has risen above the container.  (Note - it can run over the edge if left to itself, so watch.)

Bake the risen bread for 35 minutes in a preheated 350° F oven.

*Yeast note: A packet of instant dry yeast may be used.  Regular bread bakers often use a bulk dry yeast such as saf-instant (available from King Arthur's catalog or in many groceries), in which case the recommended amount is 2 1/4 t.
The center of the bread is soft, but not wet.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Primula Odyssey

When I moved to Michigan on a day much like today (snow in March), I had left behind a California garden full of succulents and tropical plants like fuchsia and hibiscus.  Now it was time to regroup.  I studied the English cottage garden (always an ideal) and prepared to grow herbaceous borders.

Browsing through the seed packets at the garden store, I found Primula veris.  I had read about primroses in English gardens so decided to try it, though it looked difficult.  Two years later, I was enchanted.  The plants grew vigorously, self-seeded, and helped to make spring cheerful and light.  That was the beginning of an odyssey into understanding and growing this genus.

A classic polyanthus. I call this one "Old Yellow".
The most familiar Primula are the polyanthus "primroses".  These are hybrids and many selected varieties exist.  The flowers are held on a stalk, usually above the leaves.  Actually, these are not true primroses.  Botanically minded gardeners sometime refer to them as Primula X polyanthus to indicate that they are hybrids.

Primula vulgaris "True Blue"
The true primroses are Primula vulgaris, a European species that is well known as an English wildflower (but apparently much less common in the wild now).  The flowers are not mounted on a stalk, but arise singly from the crown of the plant, thus are sometimes referred to as "acaulis",  "caul" referring to a stem.  The classic P. vulgaris is a lovely creamy yellow (the color sometimes called "primrose").  But there are many color variants that have either occurred naturally or through hybridizing with garden plants.

But the genus Primula is not limited to our familiar garden plants.  Primulas exist in the wild all over the world, though the single species in South America is likely a modern introduction.  I can make this statement because I possess the most authoritative book on Primula in existence and it describes the range and distribution of the genus. The book is Primula, by John Richards (Timber Press).  Anyone who has become as obsessive as I have about primulas should have the book, which describes the history, distribution, and biology of the genus, as well as its taxonomy.  There are also a selection of color plates.  But for a really wide selection of pictures of primulas, see Pam Eveleigh's gallery of Primula species  (she uses Richards' taxonomic scheme).  As Richards makes clear, the overwhelming majority of primulas are from Asia, or as he puts it, "the eastern Sinohimalaya".

Candelabra primulas
Fortunately, the English, being great plant explorers, brought many Asiatic species home and they are available to gardeners.  The candelabra primroses are descended from those early collections.  They have been hybridized and released as special varieties, which are usually grown in sweeps together. But the species are still grown. The plant blooming to the left is Primula burmanica. Primula helodoxa is just visible to the right.  The hosta behind them is full-size; P. helodoxa is very tall.  The Asiatic primulas appear to require continual seed-harvesting and replanting.  For that reason, there are not many left in my garden.

Primula auricula
Another species that has been widely adapted to gardens is Primula auricula.  There are some varieties that are spectacularly colored, so that they almost appear to be from outer space.  They are usually grown in greenhouses and brought out only for flower shows.  But there are garden auriculas too. Note that the foliage is quite different from the other primulas shown.

Primula juliae
Primula juliae is not only a long-lasting and enjoyable garden subject, but was also the source of some of the colors now available in polyanthus.  It has a different growth habit, creeping to form a little colony over time.

Having grown, loved and lost a number of primulas, I've come down finally to concentrating on those I know will have some staying power in my garden.  They include my faithful Primula veris, the acaulis P. vulgaris types,  P. juliae, and the endless varieties of polyanthus. But probably I'll always be tempted by another challenge to engage more primulas.

This polyanthus is of the true "primrose" color.

Note: this article follows another one on primulas, Primula Fever, which describes more primulas and their hybrids and has more pictures.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Winter Dreams

So how does a gardener survive winter?  Especially such a long and cold one (Michigan has been in the path of the "polar vortex" and has received more than 40 inches of snow so far this winter).

The first line of defense is, of course, the garden catalogs.  This is the time to pour over the pictures and imagine a garden full of every delightful plant possible.  I find myself dwelling over Johnny's and wondering why I can't grow exotic varieties of vegetables that I've never even eaten.  My particular obsession is with lettuces - nothing more beautiful than lettuces like blooms on the soil, especially to my winter eye. Seed catalogs often tempt one to over-order but there are also stalwarts that simply must be obtained every year.  I have a number of favorites that my garden would miss if I didn't order them.

But the consequence is that the seed packets arrive in the mail, and many of them need to be started indoors.  This is a benefit.  It is an opportunity to work with living things and see the green of chlorophyll in spite of the snow cover.

The techniques of seed starting can be very simple or extremely complex.  Most garden plants have been selected over hundreds of years to be started easily from seed.  Wild or recently domesticated plants often have dormancy mechanisms that need to be overcome before the seeds will germinate.  The survival value of this is obvious.  Seedlings may be killed in one year's bad weather and others can germinate in a different year to flower and set more seed.  Here is a discussion of factors that inhibit germination.  Here is a master list of conditions for seed germination in many wild species.

Even easy garden plants have requirements. Seed germination requires several environmental triggers to be present, and the combination of these varies somewhat from species to species.  First, water must be present.  Even dead seeds will soak up water (imbibition) and it is the first step in germination. Light and temperature are the other two triggers.  The right combination, and sometimes the right sequence, will cause a complex series of hormonal changes in the seed that allow the embryo to grow and use the stored food reserves.  Here is a scholarly review of the physiology of seed germination.

For the great majority of garden plants, higher temperatures (around 70° F) are best for germination.  This can be supplied by "seedling heat mats" for sale in many garden stores and catalogs.  There are also many light fixtures for growing plants (fluorescent lights are best) that can be fancy or simple.  I use shop lights propped up on blocks.  It is necessary to keep humidity high while germination occurs - this can be with plastic domes, plastic bags, or even transparent sweater boxes.  A timer should be used to turn lights on and off.  I use a 14-hour day length.

Seedlings are easily killed by a couple of common fungi.  This is called "damping off".  For that reason, seedlings should be started in sterile artificial medium, typically sphagnum peat that has been finely milled.  The germination medium I use also has vermiculite added to keep it from clumping.The medium should be kept damp, but not flooded.  I use a plastic spray bottle to keep dampness at the right level.

Clean containers should be used to start the seedlings.  I use simple plastic trays (and plastic bags in the beginning).  But there are many "seed starting systems" for sale.  The trays last for decades and I clean them with bleach before use. 

Most seedlings should not be transplanted until they have developed some true leaves. For most garden plants, the first "leaves" are the cotyledons, which had been the location of stored food reserves and then become green and photosynthetic after emergence.  The seedlings are still very young and don't have much of a root system yet.

Later, the true leaves have developed and the plant has begun to grow.  Eventually it has become time for what the British refer to as "pricking out" - transferring them to single containers.  I prefer 4-cell packs which allow more root room than the 6-cell packs many commercial growers use to sell flats of annuals.

In the cell packs, the plants can grow under the lights, and later be moved outside.  I use a cold frame to temper them until it is consistently warm enough to plant.  But they'll last in these cell packs until June or later.

ADDENDUM: A question left unanswered here is, "When should you start the seeds?" This depends on your location and the first frost-free date for your area. In Southern Lower Michigan, it is approximately May 15, so vegetable seeds should be started with that in mind.  Johnny's Select Seeds has a handy seed-starting calculator for that decision.   Flower seed starting is variable: some need to be started as early as January in order to bloom in a reasonable time after they are planted out. Petunias take a very long time to become planting size, for example.  Hot-weather annuals like zinnias and marigolds will need to be held until the frost-free date, so that should be taken into account.  Some others, like pansies and violas, can be planted earlier so should be started earlier.  Perennial plants often grow slowly so benefit from an early start.  The seedlings shown above were all planted this year (2014).  A cold frame is useful to temper seedlings in the couple of weeks before the frost-free date.