Saturday, February 18, 2012

Don't be a sour puss about vinegar

I've read several folks disparage pickles made with vinegar. I'm not sure why. I suspect it's because they are using dead vinegar. Or, they are using the wrong kind of vinegar to pickle. Cider loves cucumbers and that's all that needs to be said about it.

Many living foods like Kefir, Kombucha, and Yogurt, buttermilk and others have their own culture. Like sour dough starter, vinegar culture, is probably floating around in the air of your home.

I love vinegar and use it in many recipes: salad dressing, marinade for meat and fish,as an  ingredient in salsa or other chutney. It can be used to help a non-yeasted bread rise.

So, how do you start your vinegar? The fully developed culture is called a "mother", by the way, and can be used as a fast start for your next batch. But you don't have to have a mother to grow vinegar.

Okay, this sounds rather simplistic, but I always start a new batch with a good bottle of wine. Many wines already have a vinegar culture included and you will know one as soon as you open a bottle of wine that has "turned." But what if you don't want to wait to find that "off" bottle of wine vinegar? I say harvest it yourself.

If you want white vinegar, use white wine; if you want red, use a red wine. You want apple cider vinegar? Use apple cider! I have also made vinegar from left over mead (which is a honey wine). My most favorite vinegar for salad dressing uses a base of blackberry mead. I plan to use some of our next batch of strawberry mead for a vinegar if I can manage to smuggle away a bottle of it before the hoards guzzle it down.

Now, here is where I sound a bit mad. As a home brewer of mead, Kombucha and Kefir; and sour dough starters in addition to all the various vegetable ferments we eat; I have discovered there are way too many odd yeast bestiaries milling around in my kitchen. The vinegar bestiaries, literally are crowded out and do not thrive inside my kitchen. So, I raise my vinegars in my shed. This is the same area that is occupied by the sheep, so I have to be careful that the vinegar is tucked away safe and left alone while it grows.

I'm not sure, but I believe that like a certain cheeses or sour doughs, the secret to success is location, location, location. Some molds and yeast just gravitate toward certain environments. I've grown vinegar mothers successfully in my bedroom as well. But the best tasting ones come from the sheep shed.

So, how do I grow the mother? If starting without an existing mother, I pour an entire bottle of wine/cider/mead into a gallon glass jar across the back of a wooden spoon to make sure it is well exposed to the air. Then, I may even whisk it a little to get some nice air bubbles into it, or put a lid on and shake it really well. I normally perform this trick in my kitchen, but I have done it while balancing the jar on a board set across the wheelbarrow in the sheep pasture.

Then I take a linen napkins or handkerchief (I buy antique ones to use for these antique food brewing methods because I know they are really linen and not some odd plastic fabric), and tie it down with a big rubber band or a bit of twine. Then the jar goes out to the shed and is tucked in between two bales of straw up on a shelf back in the corner. I leave it there for about 2 weeks.

After two weeks I give it the sniff test. If it smells more like vinegar than wine, I start to believe we are getting somewhere. I hold the jar up and look through the liquid. I'm looking for some of those floating weird looking yeastie things you see in a Kombucha batch. They look rather like floating man-of-wars with a few tendrils hanging down. This will eventually grow into a full blown mother.

If I want a mild vinegar, I can bring it in and bottle it (usually into pint jars but sometimes quarts). I put on a top and set it in my pantry.. Shutting down the oxygen seems to slow the process at this point. If I want a strong vinegar, I may add a little more wine or boiled/cooled water and let it keep growing.

A fully developed mother looks and feels like a slime football. It floats around in the middle of the vinegar that feeds it and will eventually stop growing. You can pull out the mother and pull her apart or separate with wooden spoons and share her with friends. Having a mother already established makes vinegar growing very easy and much faster. I've had one mother live in red wine for about 8 years now even though she has been ceremoniously cut up into pieces annually. I just put a hunk of her back in the jar and pour another bottle of wine over her after harvesting the last bottle she transformed.

I have more trouble with the cider mothers but they also seem to like my sheep house. The whites are the fussiest and only want to live in my bedroom; but they are the divas.

The vinegar will grow the fastest in warm weather. It seems to stop completely when it gets cold. It does not like to freeze, so I bring them into the house and they live in my laundry room in the winter.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Chili and Chocolate

The weather here has finally decided to become seasonal. At least for a day or two we are experiencing cold air and stuff coming out of the sky. With any luck, we will see a nice little dusting of snow tonight. After that we are back to Spring like temperatures. But to celebrate our winter, I decided I would make Chili.I make mine in stages and add ingredients at several times throughout the cooking period of four hours. That's why I don't toss it all into a crock-pot at the beginning of the day and walk away. If you have a weekend afternoon at home, and want a deeply warming and filling meal. But this is definitely a one pot, one cutting board, one chef knife and a wooden spoon kind of a meal. Easy clean up is always a plus in my book. I don't think you can do much better than a big bowl of chili topped off with freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese and an ice cold beer after a day of fixing fences or some other vigorous outdoor activity in the cold. .

So, what's with the chocolate? I guess I make a Peruvian version; or at least a South American version, because I like to add some coco to my chili. Like a mole sauce. I can't figure out how to get that accent over the e on the mole, but believe me, with this dish, it's there.

If you are eating locally, and you've grown a garden the previous year with most of these ingredients, you are in pretty good shape. You can use dried celery in this dish. Just soak it in the wine for about an hour before starting. The only "out of town" ingredients in this for me, is the sea salt and coco powder, but the brand I have is free trade. I got the corn grits from the gift shop at Strafford Hall. Locally grown and locally ground. I keep hoping they will grind other grains as well. Since I live at the Chesapeake Bay, I'm going to keep seeking ways to get salt locally. Seems like there should be a way.

feeds 4

1 pound Pastured ground beef
1 teaspoon of bacon grease if needed (see below)
1 pint beef bone broth
2 large yellow onions, chopped large
1 stalk of celery with leaves, chopped fine
3 small garlic cloves, minced very fine
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup corn grits
2 tablespoons real butter
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons of organic coco powder
Sea salt to taste
1 jalapeno pepper (set aside for now)
1 to 2 cups of shredded sharp cheese  (set aside for now)

Okay, First of all, this list is out of order, so follow me along here. The pastured beef should be fairly lean, start out browning it in a large cast iron pot. If it is too dry, add 1 teaspoon of bacon grease. When the meat is about halfway cooked, add your celery and onion. Cook them over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Now, add the minced garlic. Stir until you can just smell it start to sweeten, don't brown the garlic or it will become bitter. Now add your red wine. Stir it in well, turn the heat to low, put the lid on the pot, and walk away for 1/2 hour.

Pull all your seasoning together including the coco powder, but not the jalapeno. Sprinkle all the seasoning over the now, very mellow meat and veggie mixture. Stir it in well and then add the beef broth. Taste it. Add a little salt. Put the lid on and let it simmer on low or med low for about an hour. Come back and again taste for the salt. If it needs more, add it at this time. Again, let the mixture heat on low for about a two hours.

Okay, you are getting close to meal time (about an hour out) and folks are starting to ask about what smells so good. Now, it's time to add the jalapeno. Cut off the stem. Split it down the middle. If you know you and everyone you are feeding likes it HOT, mince up everything including the seeds and just toss it into the chili and stir. If you aren't sure, scrap out the seeds. Put them aside. Very finely mince the jalapeno pepper. Add two teaspoons to the chili. Stir. Taste. Taste again in about 15 minutes. If it's not hot enough, add another teaspoon or two and keep adding every 15 minutes or so until you are happy. If it's good for you, put the rest of the minced pepper in a small jar and top it off with a nice vinegar. Store in the frig. You can use it to pep up other meals as needed. If you like your chili mild, but you have a heat seeker in your family, leave out the minced jalapeno next to the cheddar cheese and they can add their own version of hot when they get their bowl for dinner.

You will have noted long before this, that this chili seems sort of runny. One half hour before you serve, stir in the corn grits. Put the lid on. Keep temperature on low. The grits will thicken the chili and add quite a bit of substance with a minimal of carbs -- you are, after all, splitting one serving of grits between four servings of chili.

Serve in big bowls and top with the shredded cheese.

If you cannot eat corn, decrease the broth to 1/2 pint. Add one tablespoon of Arrowroot powder at the same time you would have added the grits.

I serve this with canned figs topped with cream for dessert.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Wine and Cheese

I am most fortunate to know lots of wonderful people. One of my most favorite is the young lady who helped me challenge my notions about healthy eating and who introduced me to the Weston A. Price Foundation. I have not asked her permission to use her name, and she is a very private person, so let's just call her my angel and leave it at that.

Anyway, my angel and I decided that we needed to get together and visit some agricultural operations. We picked the new farm connected to Sally Fallon; the P.A. Bowen Farmstead. Now, my angel lives in Washington, D.C. and she is right in the heart of it. Following my GPS instructions, I got to tour some interesting parts of the inner city. It was interesting to me to see so many people outside on a dreary February Saturday morning. Where I live, you just don't see folks outside en masse. You might see one or two people tending to chores and perhaps some children out riding bikes in the yard, but you just don't see lots of people out walking places, leaning on porch rails and socializing outside in the dead of winter. I recognize that many of the people I saw may not even own cars and rely entirely on public transportation. I saw many of those rolling grocery carts being pushed along the sidewalks: some filled with laundry and some with groceries. Almost no one walked alone. It reminded me of the year I lived in Chicago and I suspect D.C. has moved strongly in that direction. My angel does not own a car and while she occasionally rents one, she relies on public transportation for 99% of her travels.

I knew that there would not be a farm tour on the day we were visiting the Bowen Farmstead, but we were primarily after groceries that we could not normally find at home. I was seeking chicken feet for use with my chicken stock. My angel was just looking for whatever looked good.

I did not see chicken feet in the freezer when we arrived, but I did find some scrapple (liver pudding) that had NO fillers! I cannot tell you how exciting that was. I did ask about the chicken feet and low and behold, the gentleman running the counter went back into the rear of the store and found me some. He also found some pastured chicken eggs for my angel. She stocked up on some of the frozen ground meats as well.

Then we sampled some of the farm cheese. Oh my, oh my! Wonderful raw milk stuff this was. I seem to remember sampling four different types. I purchased a wedge of Creamy Dreamy Cheddar and a wedge of Barely Blue. What I really liked was the arrangement in the refrigerator. Each wedge was lined up behind a dated label so you knew exactly when it had been processed and how long it had aged. Since the dairy herd is in it's resting period, these cheeses may be some of the last of last year's products. All the cheeses were aged over 60 days.

Also in the coolers was Kombucha. I purchased two bottles. Yes, I know, it was crazy; but they were flavors I had not yet found locally, I was thirsty and I didn't feel like going out to the car to find the bottles I had brought along.

But something was missing and my angel pointed out that with such wonderful cheeses, we needed wonderful wine. That's when we discovered a card on the country for a little winery, which the store fellow told us was not too far away.

Well, thank the Goddess for my little Magellan GPS or we would have been forever lost in the farmland of Eastern Maryland. But we did have faith in the little gadget and she did a stunningly good job of directing us to The Romano Winery. What's interesting is that the only clue that there may be a winery there are the neat rows of grapevines you see as you come around the corner. There was no sign. There was no obvious building that appeared to be a wine tasting room or even a production area. But there was a fellow on a tractor and we turned into the driveway and drove up the hill to what was clearly the family home. We drove past a garage like building that had a neat little collection of bee hives out front and I wondered if perhaps they also brewed mead.

We parked, got out and actually called the number on the card. The lady who answered the phone advised that they were not open today which we understood. But as we were discussing what we could do with out time next, up the driveway came the gentleman on the tractor. We told him how we had found the place and why we had come. He asked us to hold on for a moment, dashed into the house and returned a few moments later. He told us to just go right in and his wife would set up for us.

So, we rang the doorbell and were greeted by the most lovely person. Her name is Jo-Ann and it turns out that the chap on the tractor was her husband, Joseph. She welcomed us into her home and did an outstanding job of leading us through the tasting of their wines. I have to tell you, these folks have made some very good wines. My angel and I purchased several bottles. We also purchased honey. We got to visit their former garage, now converted into a production room. Neat folks. Neat place. Highly recommend it.