Monthly Archives: July 2009

Cream Tea Take Two: Tea-Based Cocktails and Clotted Cream

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I mentioned in an earlier post that my mother and I attempted to make clotted cream for our biennial tea party last month. Finding a legitimate yet manageable recipe for clotted cream can be tricky. Most have you heating cream slowly in a wide, shallow pan, often over a double boiler, until a crust forms on top, then chilling. Some have you starting with raw, unhomogenized milk. Some involve whipping cream with mascarpone and sometimes even sugar, but Momma and I were either too snobby or too ambitious to go in for such whipped up imitations. The real deal versions, the ones that contain only rich, tasty cream, take a long time, what with the gentle heating and the chilling and setting. We did not have a long time, with me arriving the afternoon before the tea party (with much to do), nor did we have access to the raw, full-fat, cream-on-top Jersey cow milk that I am sometimes lucky enough to get my  hands on. My mom and I heated regular heavy cream gently until she needed the stove for other tea-related endeavours, and we tried to let it set, and, when that did not work, tried straining through coffee filters (Alton Brown’s suggestion), but again ran out of time. Ultimately, I scooped out the thickened parts, whipped the rest of it, and folded it all together. It tasted good, and there were no upturned noses at our offer of thick cream on scones, but my Gran would have been apalled to hear it called clotted cream. I vowed to try again and to get it right before the next tea party.

This time around, I came much closer. Not close enough that I don’t need to try again, but closer. For those unfamiliar with clotted cream, it is also known as Devonshire cream (to girls like me, that is, with roots in Devon — the Cornish make it, too, and claim it for their own), and it is thick and smooth and barely golden, and it is wonderful with scones and jam. You can buy it in gourmet stores in the U.S. for six bucks or so for a tiny jar, and the texture is nice, but it’s surely been pasteurized to all hell, and it’s just not the same. Purists may tell you that proper clotted cream cannot be replicated here under any circumstances, because the milk in the U.S. is not the same. That’s all fine and good, but, while mass-produced dairy here is definitely nowhere near what it is across the pond, and while our cows have not been eating good, vitamin-rich English grass, we’ve got some pretty good grass here in the states, and there are some awesome farmers out there feeding it to some healthy cows who then produce some fantastic milk. Nay-saying purists me damned — I think we can make clotted cream stateside. I am happy to keep trying, and I am always happy to host a tea party.

I decided to keep things manageable for myself this time and only provide cream tea fare: scones, clotted cream, and jam.  I also offered up tea-based cocktails. I told guests that they should not bring anything unless there was something they were itching to make, and I was amazed at the lavender shortbreads, adorable open-faced tea sandwiches, brownies, fresh dark cherries and lime blossom tea that appeared on my counter. It was a far better spread than I would have dared dream.

To make the clotted cream, I poured raw, unhomogenized milk into the ceramic pot that sits in my slow cooker. I let it sit in the fridge overnight so the cream could separate, and I supplemented with a little bit of heavy cream. Then I took it out and heated it for a couple of hours on the “warm” setting. To my great delight, the nubbly golden crust typical of real clotted cream formed on the top. The cream got a little thick. I skimmed it off the top, put it in a baking pan to cool, and popped it in the fridge. The now-skimmed milk went back into its bottle for drinking and general milk use. I checked on the cream before bed, and I was happy to note that it clung to the edges of the pan and appeared thick and just about right for clotted cream. Alas, I checked it again in the morning and found the thick parts thick and perfect, the thin parts still thin. Again, I turned to coffee filters. Again, it took forever to strain and was still runny by tea party time. Rather than whipping the runny parts of the cream, I decided to pour it into a jar and shake it, hoping that the thicker, crustier parts would maintain their shape and texture. Here is the weird part: I shook it up in two batches. One thickened up to a consistency similar to that of very thick whipped cream. The other batch separated, after very little shaking, into a runny white liquid and a ball of thick yellow cream. I gather this is how butter is made, with the runny leftover liquid being traditional buttermilk, but the more solid part was far more creamy than buttery, and, when folded into the other batch of cream, it was lovely. The final product had a pale gold color and clotted creamy texture and was very close to what I’d hoped for. Next time around, I will try to cut out the extra steps of straining and shaking by using fresh cream. Still raw, still from Jersey cows. We will see how that goes. I will post a recipe then, or whenever I have a more reasonable number of steps and a less whipped final result.

The cocktails, on the other hand, worked out great this time around. I made an herbal tea sangria with licorice-mint and red zinger tea, a little hibiscus liqueur that I made a few months ago, and white wine. The more popular drink, arguably the better of the two, was an Earl Grey based drink that I called the Grey Lady. Make a pitcher for your next afternoon cocktail party, or serve anytime if you’re not an insomniac who shies away from caffeine in the evening hours.

Recipe: The Grey Lady

You will need:

  • 6 Earl Grey tea bags
  • 1/4 to 1 cup sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 pink grapefruit
  • rhubarb infused gin
  • gin
  • water

Steep tea bags and zest of grapefruit and lemon in 4 cups boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags, add sugar to taste, pour into pitcher, and let cool. Juice the lemon and grapefruit and add to cooled tea. I added a good bit of rhubarb gin, well over a cup, and then added regular gin until it tasted right. If you have rhubarb booze on hand, gin-based or otherwise, I suggest you use it. If you do not, regular gin will suffice, though you may want to increase your citrus a bit. I wound up using roughly 1.5 parts rhubarb gin and 1 part regular gin to 4 parts tea, and it went over well. Mix it up and serve over ice.

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How to Make Sour Cherry Jam

Step 1: Get cherries.

I have wanted to make sour cherry jam for years, but it seems that I just about always miss sour cherry season. I tend to think they will stick around longer than they do, or it is not a convenient jam-making time when the season is upon us. This year, I finally prioritized jam making and picked up around five pounds of sour cherries at the greenmarket. Sour cherries have a slightly different flavor from sweet cherries. They are the ones typically used in pies and maraschino cherries, and they are delicious, but the main reason I wanted to use sour cherries instead of sweet is that jam and preserves generally need a whole lot of sugar to set up and keep right, and I thought sour cherries would make a more balanced jam than sweet ones would.

 

About a quarter of the total cherries used

 

Step 2: Pit cherries.

I recommend a cherry pitter for this task, also known as an olive pitter. It works on both. This task is repetitive and time consuming. If you have someone to chat with, throw on some music and jabber away. If you’re on your own, I recommend turning on the TV and sitting while pitting. It’s all fine and good to be meditative about it, full attention to pitting cherries on foot in the kitchen, but that’s not how I was feeling on Wednesday evening after work and class and hustle and bustle. I was happy to sit down.

Step 3: Put all your ingredients in a big pot and turn on the heat.

This is the first time that I have *gasp* canned without a recipe. I am generally fearful of doing so, because it’s possible to screw up and give your loved ones botulism for Christmas, and that is no fun at all. But I could not find a recipe that I felt compelled to use. A lot of recipes I came across called for pectin, which I didn’t feel like getting into (I have only used pectin in jam once, and I found that I far preferred the texture of preserves made without it). The Gourmet recipe had me smashing cherry pits and tying them in cheese cloth and letting it all sit for 8 hours before cooking and then adding pectin anyway. Who wants to do that? Martha Stewart had fewer cherries than I did and only used a splash of lemon juice, and she had me adding a little sugar at a time and waiting…a little more and then waiting…it looked like a good recipe, but who has the patience?

In the end, I looked at those two recipes and compared the amount of sugar in both and went for the higher of the two, using the same techniques I’ve used for past preserves. Both recipes called for lemon juice, and I added significantly more lemon juice than either recipe called for. More acid = no botulism, and I love lemon juice in just about anything. I simmered some big strips of lemon zest in with everything else, but removed them after about an hour or so, so as not to disrupt my acid balance. Then I cooked and cooked and cooked it. Pectin would definitely have helped it gel more quickly. It bubbled away on the stove for at least 2 hours, probably more, before it became an appropriately jammy consistency.

 

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Note: I broke some of the cherries up a bit with my hands before cooking, and, after simmering for a bit, I used an immersion blender to chop some of them more finely, leaving some big chunks in there. If you do not have an immersion blender, go ahead and coarsely chop all of your cherries before throwing them into the pot.

Step 4: Check to see if you have jam yet.

Put a small plate in the fridge to chill. Once your jam gets to be thick and fairly uniform in texture, put a dollop on your chilled plate and stick it in the fridge for a few minutes. Check to see if it has set up by running your finger through the jam. If your finger leaves a little path of plate in its wake, your jam is done. I’ve seen a number of recipes that call for elaborate jam-checking measures: Using a thermometer to ensure that you are cooking it at 220 degrees for a set amount of time, turning off the heat every time you check your jam lest it should overcook in the three minutes or so that your dollop is in the fridge, etc. My experience has supported my belief that an extra three minutes of cooking will not destroy your jam. The sugar and acid content and how you process your jars will determine how well your jam keeps. Texture is really an aesthetic thing. Call it done when it’s the texture you want, and you won’t run any greater risk of spoilage.

Step 5 (optional): Let your jam plump overnight.

I had some substantial hunks of cherry left in my jam (I like it that way), and, even when it finally thickened up, the bigger pieces floated to the top of the pot. Letting the jam sit a while before canning gives the fruit an opportunity to absorb more of its surrounding syrup. The fruit can then be distributed more evenly within the jars rather than floating to the top. That’s the idea. Also, it was late by the time my jam achieved jamminess, and I was tired, so I opted to not can just then, instead letting my jam sit and cool and plump overnight, lid on. Ideally, I would have canned first thing in the morning instead of going to work. Alas, that was not to be. I somehow found room in the fridge for the pot to sit during the day. Here it is plumped and ready to go:

 

Plumped and ready to go

 

Step 6: Prepare your jars (also, a word about canning pot alternatives).

Wash your jars, lids, etc. Put the lids in a small saucepan of water and heat until tiny bubbles form, but don’t let it boil. You don’t want to overheat the lids and damage the seal part before processing your jam. Put the jars in whatever canning mechanism you’ve got and cover with water by about 2 inches. If you have a special canning pot with the little slots for each jar, put it to use! If you do not have a special canning pot, have no fear. I do not have a special canning pot either. I have a big stockpot, the kind that’s designed for spaghetti, with the pot-sized strainer that fits into the cooking pot. The main thing you want, when looking for a canning pot, is one that is big enough to cover your jars with a couple of inches of water, and one that has some kind of mechanism to keep the jars off of the bottom of the pot. A wire rack would work. Gourmet actually has you lining the bottom of a regular pot with kitchen towels. That last idea scares me a little, but they usually know what they’re doing with food over there at Gourmet, so give it a whirl if you’re less of a chicken than I am. I set my jars in the strainer inside my stock pot, and it works just fine. Cover them with water and bring to a boil. Boil them for 10 minutes or so. Go ahead and boil whatever else you plan to use for packing: wide-mouth funnel, ladle, jar lifter, etc.

If you plan to can your jam as soon as you have cooked it (as opposed to letting it plump overnight), start your jars around the time that you start your jam. It takes a while for all that water to reach boiling point. Once they’ve been sterilized, leave them in the hot water until it’s time to can. If you have let your jam plump, bring it back to a boil while the jars sterilize. You don’t need to cook it more, but you do need it to be hot in order to pack it into jars.

Step 7: Pack and Process your Jam.

Once the jars have been sterilized and your jam is hot, get to canning! I highly recommend procuring a jar lifter to help with this. I used to can without one, using a silicone kitchen mitt to lift jars in and out of boiling water, but that sucked. Get your hands on a jar lifter. You can borrow mine. One by one, lift the jars out of the hot water, tip the water back into the pot, and let dry for a minute before filling with jam. I have not found a funnel to be necessary, but some people like them. I just spoon it on in. If you have noticeable bubbles in the jar, run a butter knife around the edge to knock them loose. I have only found this to be a problem with really thick stuff like apple butter. Jam tends to settle into its jar just fine. Leave 1/4 inch of empty space (head space) at the top of the jar, or whatever your recipe calls for. Top with lid and screw on the outer band to hold it in place. Screw it on until you feel some resistance, but do NOT screw it as tightly as humanly possible. The lids need a little bit of give so that air can escape while the jam is being processed and you can get a nice vacuum seal.

Put the jars back in the pot, making sure that they are not touching each other or the walls of your pot. Use the jar lifter. It’s better than a silicone glove. Bring the water back to a boil and start timing. I processed my cherry jam for 10 minutes, an appropriate amount of time for acidic things in pint-sized jars. Some recipes insist that you keep your jars in the water until it cools down. Others insist that you remove them immediately. Both camps are very clear about the fact that their way is the only possible way to make sure your jam is processed properly. I take this to mean that they both work just fine, but I tend to remove my jars and allow them to cool out on the counter, both because this method dominates my more trustworthy recipes and because it is more satisfying to watch them cool down, gleaming on the counter, and to listen for the flat little “ping” that happens when a convex lid vaccum seals and becomes concave, safely sealing your jars of jam.

 

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Cherry Jam Recipe in a Nutshell:

What goes in:

  • 5 Pounds Sour Cherries
  • 5 cups Sugar (quite shocking to the sugar-cautious among us!)
  • 3/4 – 1 cup Lemon Juice
  • Zest of 1 Lemon, in wide strips

Special Equipment:

  • Cherry pitter
  • Jar lifter
  • Adequate canning pot & jars (no, you cannot reuse old jar lids. New lids everytime, please!)
  • Any other canning paraphernalia you deem necessary

How to do it (abridged):

  1. Pit and coarsely chop the cherries.
  2. Combine all ingredients in heavy pot over medium heat, stirring well to dissolve sugar.
  3. Bring to a boil and cook until jammy consistency is reached (check using the chilled plate method, above). Remove lemon zest.
  4. If desired, let plump overnight and return to boil before canning.
  5. Sterilize jars and lids and any other relevant equipment.
  6. Fill and process jars.
  7. Make adorable labels to give your jam away as holiday gifts (I usually get around to this in December or so), or label with a sharpie and hoard for your greedy little self.

Pocketful of Posey

The other day, Shawn and I packed up homebrews and tasty rice noodles and trotted off to the opening night of the Movies with a View  series at the Brooklyn Bridge Park to take in Raising Arizona, one of my favorites, with some awesome friends. Said awesome friends brought a delicious hibiscus-basil, gin-based cocktail and homemade veggie sushi (Garden herbs! CSA cucumbers! Sushi!) and a sweet treat, and, unexpectedly and much to my delight, an herb posey.

These guys have a rather small balcony at the front of their apartment that gets good light and is home to many, many vegetables and herbs and some flowers, too, I think. Any covetousness I could dream of whipping up for that sunny little spot is completely obliterated by awe at how much stuff they have going on there. It is truly impressive. I love their commitment to container gardening, and I was thrilled to be the recipient of this lovely assortment of herbs.

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Purple basil was set aside to be sprinkled fresh on an as yet decided dish. Sage went into my favorite gratin. Thyme and oregano were tapped for dressing, and epazote for big white beans that I’ve been meaning to cook for ages, and I got down to making two very different pestos.

Pesto #1 is a traditional basil pesto utilizing the fragrant bunch of basil that came with this week’s CSA delivery. After eating a few leaves of Nicole’s baby basil and confirming her statement that it had crazy intense flavor for such a little plant, I added it to the pesto mix for extra basil deliciousness. The secret to good basil pesto is simplicity: toss chopped garlic, olive oil, toasted pine nuts and basil into a food processor and pulse. If it is clumpy, add more olive oil until it forms a cohesive sauce. I used 1 gargantuan clove of garlic (about the size of two normal cloves) for one large bunch of basil, and probably around half a cup of pine nuts and enough oil to smooth it all out. If you’re not sure about quantities, start out with less garlic and fewer pine nuts. You can always add more if the flavor’s not quite right. I add a pinch of salt to my pesto, but I typically wait to add parmesan until later, after the final dish has been assembled.

Pesto #2 was mostly me winging it, to be honest. I remembered seeing a recipe in gourmet a while back for a pesto made of cilantro and pepitos. I had those things, and I had some shiso, too, from the posey. I don’t know shiso very well, but I’d like to get to know it better. It has a strong, clean, almost astringent flavor that brightened up some of the sushi that we ate under the bridge the other day. In went the shiso. I added some lemon zest and lemon juice in an attempt to make it even brighter, and some sesame oil to warm it all up a bit, as well as nastursium leaves (the little lily pad looking guys in the posey picture) for bite.  The cilantro-sesame flavor definitely dominates, but I think the shiso is there at the end. I think it would be better with closer to equal parts cilantro and shiso, maybe a little mint, and I’d prefer lime to lemon, but it’s pretty tasty as is.

Both pestos have been frozen in ice cube trays for year-round use. Pesto #1 will be added to pastas, frittatas, sandwiches and more. Pesto #2 will be great in coconut rice, or on tofu or fish. I look forward to adding to the stash this summer and to discovering new uses for the little sauce cubes all year.

Thanks, Tim and Nicole, for the adorable posey and for herby inspiration!

Pining for the Country

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I love riding in cars on country roads with windows down, the whoosh of fresh air passing through, high green trees and looming hills. I love cooking on a fire, nestling snug foil packets into glittering wood embers, keeping an eye on dogs with wagging tails, the doggies themselves keeping an eye on whatever’s cooking. I love bright grass, muddy paths, rivers and streams and lakes and seas. So what am I doing in the city?

I go to Vermont for the fourth of July. I have gone almost every year of my life and can count on one hand the times I have missed and list the reasons — they had to be good — why I skipped out on something so precious. I asked Shawn last night, “Does coming back to the city get harder every year, or have I just forgotten how hard it was last year?” He thought the latter. Probably true. 

My mom wrote a poem several years ago, a sestina about Vermont where she said that “dozens of us think of the entire state as the converted church Doug owns.” And it is true, really, that there are two Vermonts. There is the state where dear friends of mine have lived and strangers, too, a beautiful state that is accessible all year. And then there is that smaller and more specific place that belongs to the aforementioned dozens, Doug’s Vermont, Vermont of my childhood, Vermont where I see the people I’ve known longest outside my family, where my brother unwinds, where everyone there knows it’s magic. Vermont where campfire banter is legendary and where shared memories — of injuries and car trouble, of games and inner tubes and jokes that never get old — are a balm that soothes the major and minor aggravations of our other, year-round lives.

It is perfect even when it rains all day and tents get soaked through, even when you have a belly ache and maybe a slight hangover and not enough sleep, perfect even when the brook’s so cold it makes your bones ache.

It is perfect, and it sure is hard to leave.  It might get harder every year that us kids grow up more and our parents get older, harder now that my papa is a Grandpa, my niece her own blissed out little person in sheer heaven with all of us there around the clock, with countless nooks to explore and dogs to chase down. In some ways, it is harder to leave now just because we’re grown enough to know that many of us feel the same nagging heartache about heading back to our respective day-to-days when it’s time to go.

In other ways, it gets easier to hold onto that state of mind. Before a tough exam the other day, which I had not studied much for and did not much mind, a classmate asked where I’d been over the weekend and commented that I was still up there even though my body was in class. At work, my boss said that she wished she could have my attitude, a potentially laughable compliment for my often wound up self to receive.  I’m trying, people. I’m trying to keep my head in those hills, to not engage with the stresses of the city, to move on with my chin up when people invade my space with cell phones and cigarettes and general clamor. I think it just might be working this time around. Vegetables help, and free things to do in parks. Walking by the water helps, as does taking the N train in the morning and waving to Lady Liberty (I can’t pass The Lady without at least a little wave). Friends bearing balcony grown herb poseys help immensely, and so do cooking and brewing and all the homey projects that I seek to document here.

When I started this blog, my lovely boyfriend was good enough to point out that I am not a country girl, having moved to a city at the age of four. It is true that I have spent the majority of my life in cities. It is true, too, that I am head over heels in love with so many pockets of the cities where I’ve lived, that I love theaters and restaurants and bars, live music and events I never could have dreamed up. I love Coney Island and riding bikes in Red Hook and having access to so many different cultures and points of view. But I started this blog, and I named it what I did, because I feel a lot of the time like it’s easiest to tap into my best self, to feel like my feet are planted and the world makes sense when I’m surrounded by grass and trees, when there’s room for flowers and food gardens. I feel most at rest when I am doing crafty things in the kitchen, making cheese or canning jam, taking on projects that feel, in an abstract way, a bit more rural to me. 

Most of these activities are things that I took up after moving to NYC, partly in an attempt to simplify things by making stuff myself, partly in an attempt to make contact with the land by supporting farmers with these endeavors. In the years since I have started canning, I have seen the food preservation section just about double in several major bookstores in the city. I have come across more and more people who make beer in the city, and cheese and kraut and all kinds of other goodies, and I’ve heard of more and more awesome events happening around those things. It is wonderful to know that there is so much going on across the country with urban farming, massive canning events, new CSAs, school gardens, and on and on. Knowing that these things are happening here in the city does my little heart so much good, reminds me that there are others around me who live on concrete and crave the same thing I crave, the ease of setting down roots that comes from being on more accessible land. It is good to remember that any number of actions can be taken to bring that rooted feeling into the city.

I missed Vermont the moment I left. I look forward to the next fourth of July, and I will pine away for that place for the next 360 days or so. But on the whole, I just plain feel blessed to have those few precious days up there, out of cell phone range, and I am grateful beyond words that opportunities exist for me to tap into that VT calm year round, here in the city that is my home. It gets a little easier every year.

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Return of the CSA meal plan

Things have been a little scatty for the last few weeks with various travel plans and failing to share our CSA delivery a couple of times. All veggies have been consumed or preserved in some way, except those that are still fresh and viable in the fridge, and discovering and cooking up new veggies has been great. The planning, however, has fallen by the wayside a bit.

So here I am, attempting to get back on track. This week’s delivery was particularly exciting, with 2 very fragrant bunches of herbs and no bok choy in sight. (Sorry, bok choy. I still love you, and you have provided me with terrific opportunities to get in touch with my creative side, but I need a little breather.)

We got:

1 Head Napa Cabbage
1 bunch Green Scallions
1 bunch Red Kale
1 bunch Cilantro
1 bunch Basil
1 bunch Chinese Broccoli Guy Lon
1 Boston Lettuce
1/2 pound Adorable Baby Zucchini
1 Cucumber
1 Green Romaine
1 bunch French Radishes
1 Red Oak Leaf Lettuce

We biked the kale, red oak lettuce, most of the radishes, a little cilantro, and half of the scallions and baby zucchini over to our share sharers this evening, and I resumed contemplating vegetables. Here is what I came up with this time around:

  • Cabbage and potato gratin (I am addicted)
  • Rice sticks with sesame-almond sauce, chinese broccoli, scallions, and cilantro (there’s a chance some pickly bok choy will make its way into this dish)
  • Zucchini frittata with basil
  • Salad! Salad! Salad!

It doesn’t look like much typed up there, but most of those things are good for at least a couple of meals for Shawn and me, and there will be a LOT of salad. I will also make a big batch of pesto to freeze up for colder days when fresh herbs are harder to come by. I learned this trick from my mother, whose pesto is legendary among our family friends. The quintessential summer meal, in my mind, consists of sweet corn, juicy sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper and basil, and a pile of my mother’s pesto pasta. Pesto in the wintertime is not only delicious, but has the added bonus of summoning up memories of the long table at Colleen’s house, kids and parents and good friends piled around with lake-wet hair. Definitely a thing worth preserving.

My mom freezes hers in batches big enough to feed a rather large family. As I live with just one other person, I freeze my (less legendary) pesto in ice cube trays to add to soups and frittatas, etc., or to sauce up pasta or sandwiches for the two of us. I freeze it in trays, then toss it all in a freezer bag for the winter. I pulled out the last cube a few weeks ago, and we’ve been eating fresh herb sauces ever since, so it seems like as good a time as any to start building the winter stash.

As for those cucumbers, there’s salad, of course, but also many cocktail applications to explore. I recently muddled some cucumbers and lemon for rhubarby cocktails, which were delicious. And surely something delicious can be done with cucumbers and cilantro, maybe a splash of lime? And there’s always Pim’s, of course, for these breezy evenings, and cucumber is always welcome there…does dreaming about cocktails count as assembling a meal plan? I like to think yes, that I am not digressing too much.

The zucchini basil frittata has been tucked into, and I am off to get started on the rice sticks dish for a picnic tomorrow to celebrate the start of one of my favorite free things to do in Brooklyn with CSA bounty (ours and our friends’) and homebrew. Life is good.

Ginger Cardamom Cream Ale

Shawn and I finally got around to bottling our cream ale last week, and the bottling itself was actually less of a production than I remembered. Granted, we had washed the bottles and scrubbed labels already, and Shawn was in charge of sanitizing everything and kicking off the siphoning. I simply helped fill bottles and capped them all.

 

Filling the bottles.
Filling the bottles.

 

There’s me with the special bottle filling hose that releases liquid when pressed. Pressing the tip of the hose into the bottom of the bottle lets the beer in. It is fantastically easy. Some relatives of Shawn’s left these soft-sided coolers at our place a couple of years ago, and they make a good home for bottle conditioning beer. They’re easy to clean in the case of spills, boxy and soft at the same time, making them both stackable and somewhat protective, and the lid zips on firmly. We have never had any problems with exploding bottles, but it’s nice to have them zipped up and contained, just in case.

I don’t have any pictures of the bottle capper in action, but it’s fun to use. It takes a little while to get the hang of it, though, and I always feel like I’m going to snap the neck off of the first few bottles I do. This has never happened. The worst I’ve done is mangled a few bottle caps, but I like to think those ones were defective anyway.

Call me crazy, but warm, flat beer usually doesn’t do it for me. We tasted the beer before it was bottle conditioned anyway, and I’m happy to say that this one was actually pretty good. Obviously not as good as when bubbly and a little colder, but pretty decent. We let it bottle condition for just about a week before we tried it again, and we loved it. The ginger makes it crisp and spicy, and the cardamom gives it a subtle, almost fruity taste. Overall, it is light and refreshing and a good summer beer. The spices are not overly cloying, in part because the beer is not particularly sweet.

 

Final gravity reading.
Final gravity reading.

 

Look at those champagney little bubbles! The alcohol content is pretty low — I believe under 5% — making it ideal for those summer afternoons when you’d like to have a beer with friends, but don’t particularly want to get hammered. I am looking forward to sharing this beer with loved ones and to bottling up our next batch!

For those looking to spice up their own brews, we used a cream ale kit, adding 1/4 cup fresh sliced ginger and 1 tsp cardamom (removed from pods, but not ground) to the boil for the last 15 minutes. You might want to increase the cardamom a bit if you’re making a hoppier beer, but I highly recommend sticking with a cream ale or something else that’s subtle on hops with this spice combination, and I definitely recommend these quantities.

Salty, Pickly Bok Choy

I am still enamored with weekly vegetable deliveries, and bok choy is delicious. Really. It’s great. So is it a bad sign that I began to tire ever so slightly of bok choy by week 3 of CSA deliveries? It was week 2 of failing to split the delivery with my share-sharer, and I had a lot of veggies to consume. I contemplated finding a way to put them up for the winter, but I’m pretty sure lettuce does not freeze well, and I suspect that even bok choy would lend itself to mushiness if frozen. And so I turned to kraut.

I thought about making kimchi, which seemed like a more natural fit for the taste and texture of bok choy, but, as much as I enjoy it when I have it, I imagined that a jar of the stuff would wind up sitting in my refrigerator for a very long time indeed. A friend had brought some gnarly little horseradish roots over from his father’s garden a while back, and I had some fermented garlic from awesome Amish farmers in the fridge, so spicy kraut seemed like the way to go. Besides, I am going away this weekend to a land of hot dogs and hamburgers (mine will be veggie), and I figured that kraut would be a welcome addition. Here’s what I did:

Started with a massive bunch of bok choy, which I washed and coarsely chopped.

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Mixed my greens with grated horseradish, chopped whey-fermented garlic, a little fresh garlic (because I cannot resist), and a little too much salt. Salt keeps nasty spoiler micro-organisms at bay during the fermentation process. It was a hot and swampy day when I was assembling my kraut, and I erred on the side of too much salt. At least my stuff’s not spoiling!

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Tossed the greens and their fixings into a jar and smashed them around with my (well scrubbed) hands. In addition to reducing spoilage, the salt helps draw moisture out of the greens, creating a nice brine. It’s important to keep everything submerged in brine during the fermentation process. Otherwise, things can get slimy and unpleasant.

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I hope to have a pickling crock one day, but, in the meantime, fermentation takes place in jars in this household. I had some whey kicking around from making cream cheese, so I added it to the brine. Whey is both cultured and acidic, a combination gives fermentation projects a little boost. To keep everything submerged, I weighed the bok choy down with a ziplock bag filled with salty water. The idea here is that leakage will not affect the salt content of the brine.

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I made a little coffee filter hat for my kraut and put it in a dark spot for a few days. I checked it after a few days, and the smell was just like that of good dill pickles. It smelled…well…pickly, and very garlicky to boot. It tastes briny and garlicky and sour, with a bok choy edge. The horseradish is muted, if there at all, but I anticipated as much. Horseradish maintains its kick best in cooler conditions, but I thought I may as well give it a whirl. No harm, right?

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The kraut is just a tad saltier than I would have liked, and there’s a chance I prefer the texture of good old grated cabbage (my last batch of kraut was plain old cabbage with garlic and caraway seeds, a tough act to follow), but the bok choy kraut is decent for sure, and I can only hope that my fellow fourth-of-July-ers will deign to slop some on a sandwich and give it a whirl. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

In the meantime, if you’d like to whip up some sauerkraut of your own, here are all my tricks:

  • If you are not lucky enough to have a pickling crock, keep your fermentables submerged in brine by filling a ziplock with saltwater and placing it on top of your brined veggies. I like to put the empty bag in the top of the jar and fill it once it’s inside. Less messy that way, and easier to finagle.
  • Though all you need for sauerkraut is salty brine, whey can help give it a boost. I think the easiest way to get whey, assuming you do not have a jug of it in the fridge, is to strain store bought yogurt. Make sure your yogurt contains live active cultures (it will say as much on the tub). You can get cheesecloth or muslin  involved, but the cleanest way to strain yogurt is to pour it into a basket style coffee filter set inside a strainer. Leave it sitting over a bowl in the fridge for several hours, and you will wind up with a bowl of whey and a strainer full of incredibly rich and creamy yogurt, sometimes called Greek style, always delicious.
  • I like to top my jars with coffee filters. They are clean and easy and on hand and let the whole thing breathe. A piece of clean cloth would do just as well, but I think it’s worth investing $2 or so in a box of basket style coffee filters. They are great for straining all kinds of stuff and for capping kombucha, sauerkraut, kvass, really anything you wish to ferment in a jar.
  • If your stuff gets a little scumminess on the top of the brine while it’s fermenting, skim it off. If the scumminess is pervasive, or if anything in your jar turns vibrant and unnatural colors, toss it. Odds are in favor of your fermentation going just fine, and common sense definitely applies.
  • There is a great book on fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. I waited quite a while to get it from the library some time ago, and I was pleased as punch to realize, when I begrudgingly returned it, that it is available in limited, but amazingly navigable form on google books. He says more than I ever could about fermentation — krauts, sourdoughs, honey wine, you name it. Take a look! He also has a website with useful information and troubleshooting Q&A.