Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sun Tea vs. Cold-Brewed Tea

I still have some Lipton
Another one of those things I never thought I would have to explain.  I'm always surprised when something I consider basic is foreign to someone.

The fastest way to make Iced Tea is to boil water, brew tea a little strong, and add lots of ice.  This is fine, but it lacks a depth of flavor.  For that, you need a longer brewing time.

I grew up with Sun Tea.  You add one tea bag for every pint of leukwarm water and set in the sun for 3 to 4 hours.  If you want to pre-sweeten the tea, you can do that when you pull the tea bags and the water is still warm, stir everything together, and refrigerate.  Any flavor of tea works, but we always used basic Lipton because it was the '80's and no one knew of any other tea besides Nestea, Lipton, and the green tea you got in Chinese restaurants.

Cold-brewed Tea takes considerably longer than Sun Tea.  It is also best to use loose-leaf teas instead of tea bags, so the leaves have plenty of room to expand and infuse the mix.  Use 1 Tb of tea per pint (or whatever is 1-1/2 times what you normally use).  Place cold, filtered water and leaves in a container, close the lid, and let it rest in the fridge for at least 12 hours, and as many as 24.  Strain out the leaves before serving.

So why plan a day ahead for Cold tea instead of the Sun version?  It's less bitter and contains less caffeine than any warm-brewed tea, as both qualities require heat to separate into the infusion.  There's less chance of any stray mold or bacteria from the leaves growing and becoming part of the tea.

Does that mean that Sun Tea is on its way out?  Not by a long shot.  It will always exist, for no better reason than it does not require any electricity or gas to make.  It is a solar-powered drink that you can make while camping, if the power goes out, or you're spending the afternoon on the porch and want something to look at besides a TV.  The bitterness is part of its charm, and speaks of that homemade quality.  It's just traditional.  As for the bacteria issue, that is why you don't leave it out longer than four hours.  If you brew it without any sugar in a freshly washed jar and use filtered or bottled water, the odds of a tainted batch are infinitesimal.  It also helps if you only make as much as you plan to drink in a few days.

Now that I've had my say, it's time for you to start thinking about which kind to serve at your 4th of July picnic!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Simple Syrup

As it gets warmer, I start to think about all the cold drinks I can make.  It's easier to open a bottle, but way too sugary.  My cousin showed me how to make Southern Sweet Tea, and I thought she should have frozen the tea into a popsicle, it was so sweet.

So how do you sweeten an iced drink just to your liking?  Stirring in sugar doesn't work because it never dissolves all the way.  You end up with a pile of it at the bottom.

Simple Syrup to the rescue!  This versatile staple can be used to moisten cakes before icing, as a dressing for fruit salad, and of course in any drink you can name.  It takes barely five minutes to prepare, is shelf-stable, and keeps pretty much indefinitely when covered because it contains only sugar and water which has been boiled.  You can put it in any old ketchup bottle from the dollar store and have it ready at a moment's notice.

You can also flavor the syrup.  Drop in a cinnamon stick, vanilla bean, or even a savory herb like rosemary while it's boiling, then strain it out when you place the syrup in the bottle.  Think of all those flavored syrups you get at coffee bars.  That's basically what they are, just more concentrated and usually containing corn syrup.

I'll give amounts for the sake of a recipe, but it's just a 1:1 ratio.  Make as much or little as you want.

1/2 C sugar
1/2 C water

1.  Bring sugar and water to a low boil in a small saucepan.  Stir lightly and continue boiling until sugar is completely dissolved, about 5 minutes.  Don't go away and forget about it.  If the water boils off, you're going to start making candy.

2.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.  If it cools too quickly, it may form crystals.  Pour into a bottle or jar and store in a cool place.  Refrigerator is ok.  You'll notice that the syrup has the faintest amber color.  Perfectly normal.

3.  To use, 1 tsp of syrup is equivalent to slightly less than 1 tsp of sugar.

*For fun, dissolve 1 C sugar in 1/2 C water and boil to make a double-strong syrup.  Allow to cool, refrigerate slightly, then drop in some more sugar.  It makes cool crystal formations, kind of like rock candy.  Cute demonstration of super-saturation if you have any kids in a chemistry class.

Makes about 2/3 cup

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, June 23, 2014

Cooking as Therapy

I've been working a lot.  We're understaffed.  I did six days last week, and I'm doing all seven this week.  Some are very short shifts, but it still involves going down there and clocking in.  My manager is hiring, but it will be a while before everyone is trained and up to speed.

When I get home, I don't always feel like cooking.  I just made food for people all day, and end up getting drive-thru or microwaving something.

Last week, I was having one of those tired days.  I had the makings for clam chowder in the fridge, but no urge to cook, even though I knew it was an easy recipe.  I forced myself to pull out the cutting board and got started.

Before I knew it, I was making very pretty diced vegetables.  Energy returned as I happily stirred everything together in the pot.  That night's dinner made me feel good about myself, and I was not nearly as tired as when I began.  This happens to me whenever I tackle a culinary project harder than toast, once I make myself start it.

The point of this (aside from apologizing for so few recipe posts) is that we all have stress in our lives.  We all have tired days and too many demands on our time.  Find your happy place.  It can be an activity or a favorite book.  There is something out there for each of us that brings us back to normal.  Mine happens to be cooking.  Whatever it is, it doesn't have to be expensive or require a lot of time out of your day.  It just has to be yours.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Life Among the Ruins

I still haven't redone the fountain.  I'm waiting until Roommate Smurf moves out so that, when the landscaping inevitably turns from a two-day project into a two-week one, there aren't piles of dirt all over the yard for her dog to get into.

Meanwhile, stuff keeps growing in the garden.  I don't have so much a laissez-faire approach to gardening as a lazy-ass one.  I plant stuff, water it, fertilize and pest spray as needed, and trim off the dead parts when they start to dominate.  If/when plants die, I sometimes pull them out and sometimes just chop them off above the surface.  That turned out to be the right thing to do with the artichoke, so I have kind of applied the approach to everything edible.  I almost never pick up fruit-fall or something an animal has partly eaten.  And I have stopped pulling weeds until they grow big enough to tell what they are.

As a result, I now have a new cherry tomato plant!  It was probably seeded from a ripe tomato that a bird half ate and I didn't want to touch.  My theory is that stuff like that becomes compost if you let it biodegrade.  It's in a terrible corner where the roots can't get very deep.  I'll put it in a pot while we're working and hope it survives.

I never got around to ripping out Tommy and Brad either, and both have rebounded.  Tommy is thriving as a plant, but has yet to produce a tomatillo.  Still waiting for Brad to bloom, maybe next week.  Considering I thought he was dead not that long ago, I'm not disappointed.

My onion farm
My green onions from last year keep trying to return.  While digging some out of the cracks between rocks to use in a tuna salad, I came to the realization that several bushes on that side of the fountain are actually enormous clusters of ornamental green onions planted by my mom many years ago, and I never had to plant my own in the first place.  If I had ever gotten around to controlling their spread, I would have figured it out from the strong onion scent.  I did some research to make sure they were edible, and they most certainly are.  They are far more pungent than their grocery-store cousins, so I only have to use half as much whenever I need some.  I suspect I will never have to buy green onions again.
Now I'm curious to see what other surprises await when I actually do fix up the garden.  That is, aside from the many worms and pill bugs I already know make it their home.  I have to keep reminding myself that it's a good thing which keeps the soil healthy.  Worms gross me out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Clam Chowder #2

Roommate Smurf finally got a permanent job she likes, after two years of temping.  As a result, she is moving out at the end of the month.  This was always her goal.  She was supposed to be here for 3 months while she was temping in the area.  That was October 2012.

Back then, I was toying with the idea of getting rid of my extra fridge.  My parents had it for parties.  I don't throw as many, and since I keep so little food on hand that isn't fresh, I can generally fit everything in one.  Until Roommate Smurf moved in, the extra fridge was unplugged most of the time.

My neighbor across the street hasn't had a fridge since I've known him.  He's waiting until after his kitchen remodel to get one.  It has been two years, and he has yet to start.  I've offered him the spare, no strings attached, until he gets around to getting one.

There is a point to this story.  I'm about to get to it.  It was a lot shorter in my mind before I started writing.

If I'm going down to one fridge (and a chest freezer), I need to downsize my foods as much as possible.  There's a tea party coming up soon.  Part of that effort is using some of the jars of stock in the freezer.  I don't dare to put glass jars in the chest freezer.  That's way too dangerous.  The rest is going through my bottled condiments to root out ancient salad dressings and such.

So out comes a jar of fish stock.  This recipe is largely like the first chowder, except you get a much thinner soup.  Even with cooking the potatoes in the main soup pot, I couldn't get it thick.  It isn't bad, just more brothy than the other version.  And with a much stronger seafood flavor.

1/2 yellow onion, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
2 Tb butter
1/4 C flour
1 large russet potato, about 1 lb, in 1/2" dice
*1 quart fish stock
2 5oz cans whole or chopped clams
*1 C milk
salt and pepper to taste

1.  In a large soup pot, melt butter.  Add onion and celery and cook over medium heat until soft, stirring periodically.

2.  Dump in flour and stir to make a paste with the veggies.  This will thicken the soup some, and soak up the butter and oil in the stock.  Add potato and stock.  Stir together and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook until potato is done, about 10 to 15 minutes.

3.  Stir in clams and whatever juice they were packed in.  Stir in milk.  Turn up the heat a bit and see if you can get it to thicken a little.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.  Serve hot.

Difficulty rating  π

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Lavender Extract

I don't know why I didn't think of this before.  Every time I try to use dried culinary lavender in something, I have a devil of a time straining out the used buds.  You don't eat it, you're just trying to get the flavor and aroma.  I did have a d'oh moment when Food in Jars pointed out that you can put the buds in a tea ball infuser and just pull out the ball when you're done.

This is a much easier solution that lasts a long time.  You can apply this method to pretty much any herb, even savory ones.  The internet is pretty consistent in the use of vodka as the alcohol, due to its almost nonexistent flavor.  If you use potato-only vodka, it's probably KLP.

The amounts I'm posting for this will probably last you a couple of years and are the easiest to do the math if you want to alter it.  Feel free to scale up or down as needed.  My batch was closer to half a cup, as I just used up the last of the vodka.  If storing in a room-temperature cabinet, any kind of glass jar or bottle with a good lid will do.  If you wish to display it, perhaps with a pretty label, get a dark-tinted bottle.  Either way, make sure it has a good lid so the alcohol doesn't evaporate.

*1 C vodka
*1/4 C dried culinary lavender

1.  Boil an 8-oz capacity glass jar or bottle for 10 minutes to sterilize it.  Allow to cool to room temperature.

2.  Add vodka and lavender to jar.  Seal with a clean lid or cap and shake.  Store in a cool, dry place away from light and shake every few days.  The longer it sits, the stronger the extract will be.  It will develop its tea-like color after only a few days, so don't go by that.  And don't keep opening it to smell or test.  Just trust it to do its thing.

3.  After two weeks to a month, run solution through a coffee filter-lined sieve to remove lavender buds.  Return to bottle and use as needed.  Because it's alcohol, it will keep pretty much forever.

Makes 1 cup extract

Difficulty rating  π

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Roasted-Vegetable Stock

My first gallon-sized broth bag was full, so I decided to make the other kind of vegetable broth.  The easy one I did last time was just simmered after a light sauté.  Really, I ought to finish the last two jars of fish stock before filling more quart jars, but I do use vegetable stock more often.

After lining a baking sheet with foil, I dumped the contents of the bag into the stockpot so I could toss them in oil.  Probably should have defrosted them first.  Once they were lightly coated with oil, I spread them out on the baking sheet.  It was interesting to see the kinds of things I had saved.  There were ends of onions, green onions, red onions, shallots, and carrots, the green part of a leek, about half an artichoke, and a lot of kale ribs.  I'm counting the kale as a suitable substitute for celery.  After roasting them at 375º for about an hour, they smelled wonderful and looked like this:
The next step was to put the veggies back in the stock pot with water to cover.  This was when I discovered that lining the pan with foil had been a very good idea.  Yay, me.  I was able to pry off almost everything.  To the veggies went in the remainder of my old head of garlic, a bit of fresh rosemary off the bush by the front door, a few sprigs of the thyme I still have in the fridge, two bay leaves, several whole coriander seeds, and about six whole peppercorns.  Water-to-cover was about 3 quarts.  Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer, and go do other stuff for another hour.

I decided to strain this batch through my cheese-making cloth, which is a piece of bleached cotton fabric, to see just how pure I could get it.  Using this method, I ended up with three jars of tea-colored broth that smelled every bit like the roasted veggies had out of the oven.  I only filled the jars to the 800ml mark because you're not really supposed to put quart jars in the freezer and I knew the broth was going to expand a lot.  That makes the yield about 2-1/2 quarts, or 5 cups.

Guess I'll start a new broth bag.  I'm thinking chicken for the next batch, or maybe get some of those beef soup bones that I always see in the market and never buy.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pumpkin Mating Season

Memorial Day was a good day for my garden.  It was the day I decided that Brad hadn't drowned after all, the asparagus put out two ferns almost thick enough to eat, and I found my first pumpkin blossom.

Most squash plants put out a slew of male flowers first, then get around to the female ones eventually.  At the first hint of yellow-orange, I started scouring the plants for female buds.  Those are the ones with little edema-like ovaries at the base that are waiting to be pollinated.

If you live in an area without many bees, or you had to use pesticide/fungicide to keep pests from devouring your plants, or you don't think the bees are doing their job, you can pollinate female squash blossoms by hand.  This has to be done in the morning, usually before 9am, as that's when the flowers are open.  My first female flower bloomed on the 4th, and I was so excited!  Pluck a male flower and do a little plant husbandry with the stamen and target pistil.  It is perfectly safe to pollinate with a flower from the same plant.  If you planted more than one variety of pumpkin, it's a better idea to do it by hand to make sure you get the right kind to grow and not some bizarre new hybrid.

Within a few days, you should see the baby pumpkins start to grow.  Once you have four or five on a vine, you can start plucking the male flowers and using them in recipes.  Too many fruits on a vine will result in small pumpkins.  Once you can tell which baby pumpkins are the healthiest, trim it down to two or three per vine, fertilize the soil as necessary, and keep them from sitting in damp soil by propping them up.  For that, you can either tie them up with a knee-high stocking (for smaller varieties) or set them on an upside-down plastic tub (like a margarine tub) that has air holes punched in it.

I can't believe this is happening so soon.  Even if the pumpkins take two months to mature, I'm going to be picking them in August.  I'll use this as a learning experience for next year and force myself to wait two more months before planting.  Meanwhile, I'll get to have fresh pumpkins before anyone else!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Blueberry-Banana Ice Cream

There were actually two bananas on the verge the day I made the banana mocha.  Here's what I did with the other overripe banana and some blueberries that I bought only because they were cheap.

You can make ice cream in the blender!  I don't know why I never thought of this before.  You're really making a fool, puréed fruit in whipped cream, then freezing it.  This is egg-free, for those who can't have eggs in their ice cream.  If you were to leave out the cream and blend frozen fruit, it would be a simple version of gelato.  And very ripe bananas have so much natural sugar in them, I didn't add any.  Wow, a healthy dessert.

*1 C heavy cream
*1 very ripe banana
4 oz blueberries

1.  Peel banana and place chunks in blender.  Rinse blueberries, remove any stems, and add to blender.  Purée until a uniform paste is created.

2.  Add cream.  Run blender again until fruit is evenly dispersed and cream is whipped, about 30 seconds, but your blender may be different.  Do not run too long, or the cream will start to break down into butter.

3.  Place in freezable container and freeze for about 4 hours, until firm but not hard.  Scoop and serve.

Makes about 3 C, depending how whipped the cream gets

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, June 2, 2014

Frozen Banana Mocha

I make these at work all the time with our super-powered blender.  It started one day when I thought I'd make myself a chocolate-banana shake, then decided I also needed some caffeine.  The result was pretty awesome.  It can also count as breakfast on a hot day when you are running late and need something you can have in the car.  (What, no, I'd never do that.  All of my breakfasts are nutritionally balanced.)

2 C ice cubes
1/2 C whole milk
1/2 C strong coffee or espresso
2 Tb chocolate syrup
*1 very ripe banana

1.  Place ice cubes in blender.

2.  Add remaining ingredients.

3.  Purée until banana is blended and ice has broken down, about 30 seconds.

4.  Pour into glasses, top with whipped cream if desired, and enjoy.

Makes about two 12 oz servings

Difficulty rating  π