Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Tradition

My families Thanksgiving is not a quiet, laid back affair,not even before I had children. I have often thought it would be fun to track the routes of the different conversations around the table. The political debates would pass the literary conversations on their way to someone about to tell a loud joke, often about someone at the table. The funny thing about the loud political debates is we all really agree, we just like to declare that loudly as if we have another person to convince.

We are quite the international bunch. My aunt fled her home in Nazi germany as a young child, I imported my husband from England, my cousin-in-law is from Israel and my sister-in-law is from India. This year however for the first time since Lewis and I began dating we are all sitting down to the table as American citizens. That does not mean however that all our traditional Thanksgiving dishes can be found on tables across the country. Like my family our meal contains quirks and idiosyncrasies all our own. The quirks of my family and the whole meal might be part of why it is my favorite holiday. Even before the September 11 Naturalization proceeding, when Lewis was sworn in as a citizen, it has been his favorite as well.

This is the first year I have taken on my families iconic Thanksgiving's ratatouille. I don't know the history of how it became a Thanksgiving tradition for us, however it really blends beautifully with the rest of the meal. As a suitable vegetarian main course it enables us to let our menu remain the same even though my brothers family are mostly vegetarians, except now we use vegetarian stock in the stuffing. Noah, my brother, calls himself, a vegetarian with out rules. For those who have never encountered that phrase before, it means he eats meat whenever he wants. His wife and my nieces are strict vegetarians, horrified at Noah's version of vegetarianism.

Ratatouille is one of those dishes that is more about technique then a prescription you must follow exactly. My aunts version is from a yellowed and ancient clipping from the New York Times, mine is far looser in form, a dish I make in the summer with the vegetables I have on hand. For me the requirements that allow me to call it ratatouille are eggplant, zucchini, garlic and tomatoes, the rest are just options and change with my mood. I prefer to make it with sweet peppers as well but I have been known to do without. The other vegetables I choose to add often have more to do with what I have in my fridge, and how much I was hoping to make. This summer I was trying to cobble together a vegetable for dinner from the bits and bobs in my vegetable drawers. I added chard stems midway through sautéing the onions and I was very happy with the outcome. This time I added finely diced parsnip, its sweetness will help with the lower quality of the peppers this time of year.

The beautiful thing about serving this at Thanksgiving is it tastes better if it is made at least the day before serving, because it gives the flavors a chance to blend and marry. Leftovers are never a problem because they are so versatile. Amongst my favorites is an omelette with sharp cheddar cheese and warm ratatouille. It also makes a fine filling for a pita, sauce for pizza or lasagna, sauce for fish...

When I make it I always cut up the eggplant ahead, place the peices in a colander with a sprinkling of kosher salt and allow to sit. This step makes the eggplant collapse slightly so it does not absorb oil into its air pockets like a sponge. In addition it draws out some of the vegetables moisture and with it the bitterness. Personally I love eggplant whether or not this step is included but Lewis does not, so I salt it. In the summer I often just salt it for the length of time it takes me to prep the other ingredients, however the eggplant I cook with in the summer is less bitter then its winter supermarket equivalent.

Ratatouille (to be used as a guide, no need to slavishly follow)

1 medium - large eggplant peeled in stripes so that some of the peel remains, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large onion diced (1 cup)
Extra virgin olive oil as needed (I use a lot, olive oil is healthy and really makes this dish)
2 Tbsp garlic minced
3 medium zucchini (courgettes) sliced in half lengthwise and then sliced 1/4 - 1/2 inch thick
2 - 3 small red, yellow or orange peppers, or 1 large
4 cups tomatoes canned in own juice, or 1 large can (or when in season fresh tomatoes peeled and roughly chopped)
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsnip
1 medium fresh or dried bay leaf
1 tsp fresh thyme chopped
Kosher salt to taste plus 1 Tbsp for salting the eggplant
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
(other optional ingredients include: carrots, chard stems, herbs de provence, fresh basil, rosemary, fresh fennel)

Place the eggplant in a colander in the sink and sprinkle generously with kosher salt I used 1 Tbsp). Allow to drain for 1 hour or while you prep the other ingredients. When done the eggplant should have brown liquid on it and some should have drained away. (In the summer I almost never give them a whole hour). Rinse the eggplant thoroughly with water to wash off the salt and either pat dry in paper towels or a cloth towel or you can squeeze it out with your hands. Squeezing it will give you a firmer texture.

While the eggplant is being salted add extra virgin olive oil to a preheated saute pan and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, over a low flame until pale brown and caramelized. Add 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil to a medium dutch oven (I believe mine was 5 quarts) and add the tomatoes, cook the tomatoes over medium heat while the onions are cooking. Once the onions are almost cooked add the garlic and saute for a minute before adding to the tomatoes along with the bay leaf and the fresh thyme. Heat the saute pan again and add more olive oil and saute the eggplant until browned. Add the eggplant to the tomatoes along with kosher salt and pepper to taste.

Continue to saute the vegetables in olive oil and then adding them to the tomatoes and other vegetables. If the ratatouille begins to get to dry add some water. Once all the vegetables are sauteed cook the ratatouille for a few minutes and then taste and adjust the seasoning. Either serve right away or refrigerate and reheat before serving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Homemade Whey, The Easy Way!!

Homemade whey is an optional but highly reccomnded ingredient in Lacto Fermented Green Tomato Pickles and other lacto fermented foods. When you use whey in fermentation you can lower the amount of salt in the recipe with more consistent results. Whey contains active lactobacilli, the active lactic acid and lactic acid producing bacteria we rely on to preserve and ferment vegetables when pickling. When making lacto fermented pickles without homemade whey the amount of salt has to be increased, the salt prevents the production of bacteria which would may the vegetables to go bad before they had a chance to ferment.

If you look on the web there are step by step instructions for making homemade whey using raw milk. This method requires you allow the milk to sit out at room temperature until it sours or curdles. Once it has curdled you can strain it and the liquid that is separated out is homemade whey. However there is a far simpler method for making homemade whey, one that can be used even if you live in a state where you cannot obtain raw milk. Many cooks have already made whey before, and then just threw the whey out as an unwanted by product.

To make homemade whey take plain whole milk yogurt that contains active yogurt cultures and strain it. The liquid that strains out is the whey and you are left with thick Greek style yogurt or yogurt cheese in the strainer. In the past I have used a basket style coffee filter in a small strainer when straining yogurt, however I was out of filters so I borrowed a bee keepers honey filter from my neighbors. You know you live amongst your tribe when you can ask to borrow a filter to make whey and instead of your sanity being questioned for wishing to make whey you are offered an alternative.

When making homemade whey and greek yogurt it is important to use whole milk yogurt because low fat versions often have stabilizers and thickeners in them, to make up for the missing fat, that could prevent the proper separation. In addition full fat yogurt is tastier and more satisfying, so in the end you will eat less. Somehow this feels less like making whey and more like harvesting it, but no matter how you describe the process it really is simple.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Under the Highchair Virtual Jam Swap '09

For the past month I have been playing Florence Nightingale as the males in my house have been dropping like flies. Lewis had swine flu badly enough that he wasn't vertical for days and out of work for over a week. The boys have had fevers and other symptoms one day been fine for a week and then symptoms again. Because of the swine flu the school district has sent home guidelines that children should not return to school until they have had 24 hours without a fever of 100° or higher. Once their fever is gone my children are back to their usual energy and whining levels. There is little that compares to being stuck at home with pent up children. It is these moments that I question my sanity.

However I have found solace in reading about other bloggers jams, jellies and preserves on Under the Highchairs Virtual Jam Swap for 2009. Surely by next summer all the males here will be healthy and I can make some of these. The chickens and I have been healthy all along, but the males... If you have any canning safety questions after reading the posts (or from somewhere else) feel free to ask them in the comments section here. If you have a question someone else has the same one and may be waiting for someone else to ask.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I have been on a quest for a great homemade challah recipe for several years now. I hate paying $5 for a loaf of bread that I feel I should be able to make at home. It turns out that making challah is more challenging then I originally thought it would be. I have tried every recipe in my cookbooks (with my collection this was quite the endeavor) plus several I found online. Every recipe I tried made a lackluster loaf that only looked like challah.

I often wondered if my habit of using part whole wheat pastry or white whole wheat flour was the culprit, but never bothered testing any of the recipes with all white flour. I just couldn't bring myself to expend time and energy again on any of the recipes that were boring and dense instead of eggy, rich and light. Besides, part of the benefit of baking your own bread is the ability to use healthier ingredients.

I finally found a challah recipe we all love. It is rich and eggy, soft to the tooth and it makes beautiful french toast, both in taste and appearance. Plus the whole wheat pastry flour I used did not negatively affect the finished product. However this bread is not an easy just leave it to rise for a few hours while you do other things before shaping the loaves recipe. Let's just say this is a very finicky bread. With this recipe I now understand why the Jewish people baked unleavened bread when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt. Who would have time to baby sit bread when fleeing Pharaoh? However even with all the work this bread will be made often in my home.

The original recipe came from Peter Reinhart's Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers. I guess the title should have tipped me off to the work that would be involved. The only changes I have made to the recipe are to use half white whole wheat flour, I also added some water to the egg wash so the crust was less like shellac. The first time I made it everyone liked the center, but not the crust. Lastly I adjusted the baking technique to use my convection oven, this way I did not need to rotate the loaf to ensure even browning. When making this it is important to use the highest quality eggs you can, factory egg production produces eggs that will not add much to the bread.

Adapted from Peter Reinhart's Crust and Crumb

3 1/2 (16 oz) cups flour (the original calls for bread flour, I used half King Arthur All Purpose Flour and Half King Arthur White Whole Wheat)
1/4 cup (2 oz.) sugar
1 tsp (.25 oz.) kosher salt (Reinhart does not specify kosher salt, but this is a Jewish bread)
2 tsp (.22 oz.) yeast
2 Tbsp (1 oz.) butter softened or melted and cooled
2 large eggs (3.3 oz.) beaten
2 large egg yolks (1.33 oz) beaten
1/4 cup (2 oz.) milk at room temperature
1/2 cup water at room temperature
cooking spray
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tsp water for egg wash

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on low for 1 minute using the flat beater blade. Beat for 10 more minutes on medium speed. Place dough in a bowl and mist with cooking spray, cover bowl with a lid or plastic wrap or place the bowl in a plastic bag. Leave to rise for 1 hour or until it has visibly swelled.

Remove from the bowl and knead by hand for 5 minutes. If the dough is so sticky it is sticking to your hands dust with flour and continue kneading. Return the kneaded dough to the bowl, mist with cooking spray and cover, allow to rise for another hour or until it visibly swells. After 1 hour divide the dough into 3 equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Mist the balls with cooking spray and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap to rest for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes roll each ball into a long snake that is about 12 to 18 inches long. Keep the pieces you are not working with covered. Braid the 3 pieces together starting in the middle. Pinch the ends to seal and then tuck them under. After braiding the first half turn the bread over and around so the braid will still go the same way. Do not pull the pieces overly tight when braiding as this prevents expansion while rising.

Place the bread on a parchment lined baking sheet and brush with the beaten egg and water. Mist with cooking spray and cover with the damp towel or saran wrap before allowing to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size. I found the towel stuck to the dough so I put jars around the bread and draped the towel over them so the damp towel did not touch the rising bread.

Preheat the oven to 325° with convection or 375° if your oven does not have convection. Brush the bread with the last of the egg wash and sprinkle on any seeds your family may allow you to serve them (notice my bread does not have seeds). Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, rotating the tray half way through the baking time if you are not using convection. When done it should be firm not squishy with an internal temperature of 185° (mine was more like 191° both times). Allow to cool on a rack for 45 minutes before slicing or eating.

French Toast
makes 3 slices, can be multiplied

3 slices of bread approximately 1/2 inch thick (Challah or Cracked Wheat Bread are excellent choices)
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
splash of vanilla extract (approximately 1/2 tsp)

Melt butter in a wide skillet and heat until foaming, meanwhile beat egg, milk and vanilla in a wide flat bowl or baking dish. Place bread in the batter, flip over to soak the second side using a fork and then transfer to the pan as the slices absorb batter. Allow the french toast to cook until it is golden brown in spots and then flip over to cook the second side. Once the second side is golden brown serve with butter, real maple syrup and or jam.