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Because I Can

During the wintry months it’s good to find projects that make us think about the seasons ahead of homegrown tomatoes and fresh green beans, tilling the soil and tending the garden.  In my mind I hear the sounds of life teeming all around from birds you only hear in warmer times like the goldfinches and Carolina wrens, to the chorus of cicadas in the evening  and the crickets chirping at night.   Even though it’s 7°F outside right now, we found a bargain at the supermarket which sparked our normally autumnal desire to do some canning.

Since there was a great sale of potatoes, carrots and even chicken breasts, we purchased a good amount to preserve. Canning is usually a late summer to autumn activity but doing it in the dead of winter not only gives us a great project to while away these times of cabin fever, but also serves to save us money in the future.  Carrots aren’t always 59 cents a bag and 10 lbs of potatoes are $1.39 only at Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day…maybe another time or two depending on crops.  When you can find any meat for a dollar a pound these days, its time to jump on the opportunity.  We found chicken breasts on just such a sale and discovered they can beautifully as well.

When we think about it, going to the store a year from now prices may be double on these things if not more.  I’ve already seen 10 lb bags of potatoes100_1123 for $3.50 a pound when not on sale.  Bargain hunting can really make a difference.  Canning is like putting a treasure in a time capsule.  The time capsule lasts only two years but even just two years ago food prices were so much lower.  We don’t see it getting any better so winter time is a good time to think about the savings of years to come.  The possibilities are endless as to what bargain you wish to preserve.

Stews and soups can be preserved  by canning as well.  If you make a large batch of something, the left-overs can be processed and stored for another time.  Think of the trips to the supermarket you can replace with a trip to the basement or cupboard for a delicious meal waiting only to be re-heated, the work already done.  Save that gas money and invest it into a pressure canner.  They can be as affordable as $88.00 at Target but go up to nearly $400.00 for the more serious cook.  Either way, it will pay for itself if used when the food you can is on sale, or better yet, food you grow in your own garden for pennies a pound.

If I went to the store and purchased five cans (only 15 oz. or  24 oz.) each of soup, beans, spinach, corn, carrots, peaches, apple pie filling, jelly and jam, chicken and beef, I could easily spend  upwards from $100.oo.  For half the money or likely, much less I could put up 5 quarts (32 oz.) each of my own fruits, meat, beans, vegetables and soups with the added benefit of being organic and BPA free (metal cans treated with BPA have been linked to breast cancer and asthma).  I could easily spend $1.39 on a can of potatoes but that whole 10 pound bag cost just as much and makes roughly 3 quarts…more than six times the amount prepared and available any time I want!

Canning must be done properly for the food you preserve to be safe to eat.  For instance, foods high in acid require only a water bath which is as easy as boiling water but low acid foods like the ones pictured above require the pressure canning.  The carrots and potatoes took 25 minutes at 10 lbs. pressure and the chicken 90 minutes at 13 lbs, pressure (higher altitudes require higher pressure).    Follow the guidelines in the Ball Blue Book a Guide to Canning and Preserving.  Also, I’ve found this link which has vintage recipes for free.  It too is a good guide to safe preserving.

Sure, I purchase canned goods from the store for convenience but it is becoming less and less.  It just makes good sense to preserve food myself and store it for leaner times.  Shopping in my own home-store is convenient and there is nothing prettier than the colorful things preserved in shiny glass containers displayed in the cupboard or kitchen shelves.  This, along with the previously mentioned health benefits makes me want to do all my own canning.  I have the equipment so I should can…because I can.

Creamy Mushroom and Leek Soup

These wintry days call for warm soothing meals at home.  Soup  with savory leeks and mushrooms in a creamy broth is the ticket.  Leeks are of the mildest among the onion family.  They cook up to be so tender and tasty and paired with the mild taste of mushrooms, this soup will melt away those chilly winds and give you plenty of energy to shovel the sidewalk yet again.  It’s so easy to make too.  All you need are:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 leeks cleaned and chopped in 1/4 inch slices
  • 5 mushrooms (any kind) thinly sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 quart low sodium chicken broth
  • 3 cups milk
  • 3/4 cup cream (I used heavy)
  • 3/4 cup instant mashed potato flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
  • a pinch of red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste

First saute the leeks and mushrooms in the olive oil until  tender.  Add the garlic and stir it in to bloom the flavor  Add the broth, milk and cream and stir in the potato flakes.  Stir in the remaining seasonings and let it simmer about 3 minutes.

Now at least six of you can have a nice hearty bowl of soup to warm you up all over.  For extra hardiness you could add some left over chicken cut into cubes  or add more pepper flakes to clear the sinuses during a nasty cold.  This soup will provide relief and give you energy to muddle on through all that snow.100_1118

Curds (or Kudos) to the First Guy Who Ever Made Cheese!

Apparently, way back in time, people decided to transport milk products inside the stomachs of animals like cows and sheep.  These animals called ruminants had a certain enzyme in the first of several sections in their stomachs which would break down the cellulose in the plants and grasses they consumed.  This enzyme called rennet also curdled the milk these ancient people transported in these ruminant animals stomachs thus producing curds and whey.  What a happy accident!  I bet the first guy who ever thought to do this was really surprised.

100_1078By separating the two, the solid portion became cheese and the whey was either discarded or used in cooking soups and baking of bread thus adding extra protein to the diet.

Despite how visceral the process of early cheese making was, what with cow and sheep stomachs used to tote your curds and whey around in, I decided to try making a simple recipe for fresh mozzarella using these less crude ingredients:

  • 1/2 gallon whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp. citric acid for canning vegetables
  • 1/8 of a rennet tablet crushed and dissolved in 1/2 cup water (no sheep’s stomach please)
  • 1/2 tsp Kosher salt.

First, put the milk in an appropriate non-reactive metal pot.  Non-stick or stainless work well.   Add the citric acid granules and heat the milk to 90°, add the dissolved rennet (I crushed it to a powder between two spoons first) and water and stir.  Cover the pot for 5 minutes then check if it has congealed by using a knife to pull it away from the edge and see if the milk  lifts away from the sides.  It should appear solid.

With a long knife score the now solidified mass into 1 inch cubes, horizontally and vertically also going in at an angle.  Turn the heat up to 130° and gently stir, trying not to disturb the curds too much.

100_1075100_1079 100_1082100_1087While this comes up to temperature, set up a strainer lined with cheesecloth over a large bowl and with a slotted spoon fish out the large curds and place them in the cheesecloth.  Squeeze out as much moisture as you can over the bowl and place the contents of the cheesecloth in another bowl.

100_1088100_1089100_1090100_1092Line the strainer in the other bowl again and pour the whey from the pot in it to catch the remaining curds, squeeze it of moisture and place the contents with the first batch.  You will see whey collecting so hold on to the mass of cheese and pour out any you can.  Sprinkle in the salt and gently fold it over a few times to incorporate it.

100_1096100_1098100_1102100_1111Place the bowl in the microwave and cook on high for 30 seconds at a time, pouring off whey and gently kneading between intervals until the cheese becomes more elastic and even glossy.  Use rubber gloves if the cheese becomes too hot to handle.  By the fourth interval of heating, there should be very little whey and the cheese can be shaped into a ball slightly larger than a baseball.  Sprinkle this with a pinch of salt, place it in a plastic bag for at least 4 hours and you will have delicious fresh mozzarella cheese to enjoy.

I have to admire the guy who one day milked his cow or goat and decided to carry it back home in a vessel made from a previously slaughtered cow or goat’s stomach only to get home and find something very different from milk in his sack …and still decide to eat it and eventually make a craft of it.  He certainly changed the world.  And dear sir, who ever you were, I’m encouraged to experiment with making harder cheeses and eventually crafting my own brand. 100_1114

 

Fast Food Homestyle

If you are in a hurry and want a very good meal, one with lots of flavor and nutrition then I urge you to try a quickie like this.   This is my go to dish when I work late and come home to my poor hungry family huddled on the couch looking up at me with their Precious Moments eyes pleading to be fed.  Cape waving, back-lit by the setting in the doorway I, the super-hero-diva of this scene put my purse and the mail down and dash straight to work 100_1061saving them from the brink of starvation.  I gather my tools and a few ingredients and get straight work on my rescue mission:

  • a pound of boneless skinless chicken breasts, trimmed into evenly thick cutlets
  • a bag of frozen broccoli
  • a can of cream of celery soup.
  • salt, pepper, onion powder and paprika
  • olive oil
  • a splash of milk

To prepare the chicken I tenderize it by pouring a generous amount of salt on both sides.  In lieu of brining this salt sort of flash brines the chicken while I get all the other ingredients, and equipment ready.  In about five minutes I have my skillet, tongs for turning the meat and a spoon for stirring ready.  I get the broccoli out of the freezer, a can of soup from the cupboard, and  n a skillet I drizzle a tablespoon or so of olive oil.

100_1063100_1065Chicken breasts easily dry out when cooked so the salt, which is now rinsed off has done its job to help keep moisture in.  I pat it dry with paper toweling and carefully place it in the now hot oil.

100_1066The chicken gets sprinkled with a fair amount of pepper, onion powder and paprika, I give it a turn and treat the other side the same.  This sears a while on both sides then the broccoli is added, then the soup and a good splash of milk.  A lid goes on top for about fifteen minutes so the broccoli cooks and the soup and milk get nice and bubbly.  The chicken should be done now so I 100_1068pull it up off the bottom and let the vegetables get mixed up in the sauce.  The lid goes on for another five minutes or so then dinner is served.

I’m now just a mild mannered diva having dinner with my family.  I’m so grateful for them and for all the convenience that fills our lives.  We know nothing close to starvation.  In only thirty minutes I have a nourishing hot meal on the table.  It was very affordable too.  And though they were a little bit hungry when I got home, now that we are all sharing a meal together, I see that they are grateful for me too.  Life is good.100_1069

 

 

When it’s 12° Only Soup Will Do

100_1038In the Region of Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy the tortellini was born.  It is unclear why it is named tortellini; perhaps because of the architectural structures using a tortoise shell for inspiration but also the pasta is called little navels (ombelico) reminding some of the navel of Venus.

This divine reference is perfect for how this tortellini soup tasted and warmed us through and through tonight.  I think Venus herself might have relished this soup.   Just smelling it cook gives one a feeling of warmth.

If you would like to warm up the same way just gather these ingredients from the pantry and refrigerator:

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 white mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced100_1042
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 scallion, sliced thinly
  • a pinch each of salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 lb pork sausage or ground turkey (turkey will need Italian seasoning)
  • one 15 oz. can diced regular or roasted tomato
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 beef bouillon cubes
  • 3 cans (from the tomatoes) water
  • 1/2 package thawed frozen spinach
  • 1/2 lb fresh 3 cheese tortellini

First, in a dutch oven or stock pot saute the onion, m100_1045ushrooms, garlic and scallion in olive oil until the onions brown a bit. Brown off the meat, add seasoning if necessary, then add the tomatoes with the juice to 100_1048deglaze the bottom of the pot.  Add the stock, cans of water, and bouillon cubes and stir.  When 100_1046the spinach is thawed remove half from the box and put it on a paper towel.  At the sink squeeze out as much liquid as possible, open the towel and place the spinach in the pot and stir until it breaks apart.  Let the soup come to a boil, add the tortellini and 100_1047let it boil for about 5 minutes or until the tortellini it is tender.

This only takes a little more time than boiling a big pot of water but instead of just hot water you get a delicious, nutritious body warming soup with such a depth of flavor you won’t believe could happen so fast.  It will fill you up as well.  On a chilly January night what more could one ask?

100_1051

 

Home Made Yogurt Is the Way to Go

100_0962100_0959I love yogurt but now I love it even more because I never knew how easy it was to make.  I also never knew it could taste even better by culturing my own.  It only takes a quart of milk, a spoonful of Greek yogurt (a starter sample) and about half a day.  You will also need four tools: a sterilized quart jar, a deep sauce pan, an instant-read thermometer, and a whisk.

The first step is to sterilize the equipment.  If you have a microwave it can easily be done right in the quart jar.  Just boil half a quart of water in it for a minute or so and put your thermometer and whisk right it it until you are ready to use them.  This step should kill off any bacteria that would prevent the live good bacteria in the yogurt to grow in the milk.

100_0961100_0964Pour a quart of whole milk into the saucepan and heat gently to 180°.  Stir frequently to prevent scalding on the bottom.  Why 180°?  This temperature pasteurizes the milk  It will kill off any bacteria in the milk but is just under the boiling point.  Boiling will cause scalding and little chunks of scalded milk will not be good in your yogurt.

So now, cool down the milk.  You can wait for it to happen with a100_0967 lid on the pot and take about 30 minutes or if you hate waiting like me you could put it in cold water in the sink and take about 5 minutes to let it cool to 115°.  This is the perfect temperature the good bacteria in the yogurt sample needs to thrive and grow…it should feel like bathwater, not too hot.

100_0966This is the time to introduce the spoonful of Greek yogurt.  Greek yogurt contains live cultures which are important if you want to grow new ones. Read the label under the ingredients to make sure it says LIVE or ACTIVE cultures.  Just whisk in the sample until it is dissolved then pour everything into the now empty sterilized quart jar. place a lid on top and keep 100_0968the jar in a warm place for about 12 hours.  A good way to do it is to turn on the oven and let it heat for 5 minutes any temperature setting.  This will be just enough to get it warm and keep your culture warm for several hours.  About half way through, fire up 100_0969the oven again as before and let it go the rest of the way.

At about the half way point I needed to use my stove to make dinner so I put the jar in front of a heating duct until the time 100_0971was up.  This worked out nicely.

The last step is to refrigerate for at least four hours or over night.  Since I started this project at 10 a.m. I chose the over night rout, but when I woke, I had a delicious breakfast waiting for me.  This yogurt turned 100_0999out thick and creamy and oh so tasty! Wow!  I will never buy yogurt again.  For one, Greek yogurt is expensive.  For the price of just one 24 oz. tub you can have a whole gallon of it.  And 100_1001second, the taste can’t be beat.  Lastly, it was a fun project and the family and I learned something new and sciency…just don’t 100_0970forget to save a sample for your next batch.

To go over the top, try it with homemade blackberry preserves!100_1004

 

If You Have a Cold for the New Year Here’s Help

I am a firm believer in the old cure for the common cold being chicken noodle soup.  It sure has helped in the past.  I don’t know what it is but there have been studies that link chicken soup with feeling better after a  siege of  coughs and sniffles.  It recently helped my oldest daughter.  Now I hope it will help my husband and the younger one.

Dr. Stephen Rennard MD out of University of Nebraska Medical Center tested his theory that chicken soup can ease the suffering of cold symptoms and added his wife’s home made chicken soup to white blood cells, called neutrophils from 15 different volunteers. To his surprise, the soup did slow the neutrophils. In fact, he claims that chemicals in the broth-based elixir clears a stuffy nose by inhibiting inflammation of the cells in the nasal 100_0950passages.

Dr. Rennard did admit that there needed to be more studies conducted, but believes his findings from 1990 are one more piece to complete the puzzle.

At the very least, chicken soup contains healthy vegetables, protein, and liquid to keep you hydrated.  This recipe contains all those good wintry cold calming ingredients like:

  • 6 quarts boiling water
  • 2  ribs diced celery
  • 2 medium carrots thinly sliced
  • 1 onion finely diced
  • 2 or 3 large chicken leg quarters (about 1 and 1/2 to 2 lbs)
  • 6 chicken flavored bouillon cubes
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 inch circumference bundle of angel hair pasta broken in 1 inch pieces

100_0945100_0943First, saute the vegetables in a large skillet until the onions are clear, Then boil the water and cook the chicken in it until the temperature of the chicken is 180°. Remove the chicken to a plate to cool slightly and let it rest a while.  Dissolve the bouillon cubes in the boiling water, add the vegetables and noodles and boil until the noodles are tender.  Turn off the flame.  Remove the skin, sinew, and bones from the chicken leg quarters and tear or cut up the meat into small bite-size pieces.  Add them to the soup and serve.

100_0952This makes enough soup to float a battle ship so be ready to store some leftovers unless you plan on serving several wards of sick people.  I made this big pot because the leftovers will be a welcome heat-and-eat meal over the next few days while everyone is on the mend.  I’ve luckily escaped the grips of this round of germs but having this ready made secret weapon in stock is a good thing.  This soup freezes nicely too.  Stay well,  and Happy New Year everyone!100_0956

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