As I write this, it’s 10am and temperatures are already in the mid-80s. I’m sitting outside and there’s a pleasant breeze, but I know I only have about an hour (if I’m lucky) before things become unbearable and I have to take shelter. It’s expected to hit 95° today, and we haven’t yet put our lone window A/C unit in, so I may be spending the remainder of the day in the basement. If things get really bad, I might have to resort to turning into one of those people who write in coffee shops for the day.
These unusual-for-Michigan high temperatures have thrown everything off kilter for produce. Most notably, the fruit trees all blossomed prematurely and the blossoms then got killed off by a frost. For a state with a major fruit-growing industry, things are not looking good: we’ll see little if any apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums or anything else that grows on a tree.
Despite this setback- one that affects me personally as a small business owner trying to use local produce- there are still several fruits that should still thrive this year, like raspberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries and of course, strawberries. Strawberry season, which usually starts around this time, has already been going strong for a few weeks, and probably won’t be around much longer. As soon as we were able, in late May, my partner Molly and I went to a U-Pick farm on a beautiful spring morning and picked 60 pounds of the most gorgeous berries I’ve seen in years (see below). Last year’s strawberries were somewhat watery due to a lot of rain, but these were deep red with concentrated, complex flavor.
In addition to making jam for our business, we each took a few pints for our own personal use. While not much can beat the simplicity of a bowl of sliced berries with a small sprinkling of sugar and maybe a touch of lemon, my favorite thing to do with them other than that is to make ice cream. I had recently checked out Jeni Britton Bauer’s book Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home from the library, and as someone who makes lots of ice cream, was intrigued by her no-egg method. Rather than make a custard base, she uses a combination of cornstarch, cream cheese and corn syrup to give the proper consistency and scoopability to her creations. I was a bit skeptical at first- I’m trying to limit consumption of GMO corn products- but decided to go ahead with a couple substitutions, using tapioca for the starch and an organic corn syrup. Incidentally, Jeni’s is a cool regional (Columbus, OH) company who generously sent several pints for us to sample at the first annual Gourmet Underground Detroit potluck picnic, which is happening again this Saturday! Everyone loved the Bangkok Peanut, Wild Berry Lavender and other creative flavors. Continue reading
For someone without much of a sweet tooth, I make a fair amount of ice cream. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and I think it’s the fact that there are so many possibilities (endless, really) when it comes to flavor. Unlike baking, which requires a bit more precision, ice cream making has a lot of wiggle room when it comes to proportions. Recipes vary wildly in the amount of eggs, dairy and sugar called for, and somehow all end up yielding a fairly similar end product. As long as you understand the basics of making a custard (and many versions don’t even require that!), you can vary the other elements a great deal and still get a good result. Add to that the fact that making ice cream doesn’t require turning on the oven, and usually only dirties one bowl and one pot, and you have some pretty strong motivation for turning your creative energies in that direction.
The first ice cream I made this year was inspired by sweets of the Middle East and North Africa. Honey and pistachios play a starring role, with orange flower water as supporting cast. But unlike some pastries in which the honey can be cloyingly sweet or the overuse of rosewater brings to mind your grandmother’s perfumed soap, this ice cream strikes a delicate and, if I may say so, delightful balance. Rosewater is perhaps more commonly used in the region, but I’ve never loved the scent or taste of roses so I opt for orange flower. Orange blossom honey would be a natural partner, although any flavorful honey will work. Swirl in a generous amount of toasted pistachios, and you have a dessert worthy of an Arabian prince. In fact, according to Wikipedia’s entry on ice cream,
“As early as the 10th century, ice cream was widespread amongst many of the Arab world’s major cities, such as Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Their version of ice cream was produced from milk or cream and often some yoghurt similar to Ancient Greek recipes, flavoured with rosewater as well as dried fruits and nuts.” Continue reading
My start-to-finish process for making a recipe often goes a little something like this…
Day 1 (Friday): Think about what recipes to make over the weekend. Decide to attempt chlodnik, a chilled Polish soup with buttermilk and beets. Look at recipes online. Make a shopping list.
Day 2 (Saturday): Oversleep, miss the farmers’ market. Instead of cooking, go out to eat later with friends who are in town playing a show.
Day 3 (Sunday): Go to the grocery store in the late afternoon; pick up beets, buttermilk, cucumber, dill, scallions, radishes. Get home from the store late and too hungry to “cook”. Make a veggie “taco salad” with romaine, tomatoes, avocado and cut up pieces of a Dr. Praeger’s Tex-Mex veggie burger and call it a night.
Day 4 (Monday): Work late, get home starving, make frozen potstickers and salad for dinner. Finish too late to really have time or motivation to be in the kitchen. Try to make some headway on your book club book.
Day 5 (Tuesday): Plan on at least prepping some ingredients tonight, but get an invitation to go to a friend‘s for dinner, and accept. At this point, decide that maybe instead of making the soup for weekday lunches/dinners, you’ll just bring it to a potluck picnic on Saturday.
Day 6 (Wednesday): Go to the gym after work because it’s been, like, over a month. Have another salad for dinner. Actually get around to doing some prep work- peel and cut up the beets and cook them; set aside in the fridge.
Day 7 (Thursday): Fully intend to do the remaining prep after work, but instead get caught up cleaning kitchen for three hours because of discovery of an invasion of tiny bugs that have entered your home via a bag of cat food.
Day 8 (the following Friday- yes, a full week after the plan has been put in motion): Get down to business. Cut up cucumbers, radish, scallions, dill; combine with beets and buttermilk, a little sugar & salt, and some sauerkraut for good measure. Taste. Beam with pleasure that it tastes as good as how you remember it when you used to work at that deli that makes it. Refrigerate overnight to blend the flavors.
Day 9 (Saturday): Serve chlodnik with marble rye on the side to friends in an idyllic setting. Bask in the compliments (hey, it’s no small feat to impress these hardcore gourmands, let alone expose them to something they’ve never tried before!). Decide that this is going to be your go-to chilled summer soup for the next little while.
NB: I am not making any claims of “authenticity” for this version of chlodnik, other than to say it closely resembles the one I used to eat at Russell St. Deli when I worked there. In looking at recipes online, it seems there is a great deal of variation. One of the things I ran across a few times was that this recipe is supposed to be made with baby beets, about the size of radishes, and that you’re supposed to use the whole plant, stems, greens and all. I couldn’t find any baby beets (see above re: sleeping in & missing the farmers’ market!) but I’d like to try it that way in the future just for comparison’s sake. Other variations include the addition of grated raw turnip, chopped pickles, and quartered hard-boiled eggs. My only departure from the Russell St. version was the sauerkraut, but I didn’t add so much as to overwhelm the other flavors.
Chlodnik (Chilled Buttermilk-Beet Soup)
6 cups buttermilk (if you’re in MI, the Calder brand is good)
1 lb beets + 1 cup beet cooking liquid (see recipe)
1 cup seeded & diced cucumber (½ a large English cucumber will yield this)
1 cup very thinly sliced radishes (3-5 radishes depending on size)
2-3 scallions, thinly sliced
2 Tbs finely chopped fresh dill
1½ tsp sugar
1½ tsp salt
½ cup sauerkraut + ¼ cup sauerkraut juice
optional: ½ cup sour cream
optional: hard-boiled egg quarters for garnish
Many of the recipes I found called for some sour cream, which made for a thicker soup than what I had remembered. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you have a good quality thick buttermilk, you may not need it. If you’re using sauerkraut, use a salt-fermented sauerkraut (the Bubbies brand is awesome) rather than one in vinegar.
This recipe makes a fairly large amount of soup (about 10 cups). If you want to make a smaller batch, just use 1 quart buttermilk (4 cups), and reduce the quantities of the remaining ingredients by about 1/3. As with many soups, precision is not of the essence.
Peel the beets with a vegetable peeler and cut into matchsticks. Raw beets don’t stain much, so you don’t really need to worry about wearing gloves for this. Place the beets in a small saucepan and add water just to cover. Cover and cook at a very low simmer until tender (do not allow to boil or they will lose their bright color). Drain, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid.
If using the sour cream, place it in a large bowl. Whisk in buttermilk a little at a time until the mixture is liquid and no lumps remain. Add all remaining ingredients and stir well. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Refrigerate until well-chilled.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with a little sprig of dill and a couple hard-boiled egg quarters, if desired. Pumpernickel or rye bread is good on the side.
As someone who has many interests but never a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, it’s a little hard not to envy Liz Thorpe. In 2002, she quit a corporate job to work behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York for minimum wage, because she decided on a romantic whim that she wanted to work in cheese (in her paraphrased words, the reason was something like “I thought it would sound cool at cocktail parties”). In seven short years her new career has skyrocketed: she is now Vice President of Murray’s, has traveled all over the U.S., advises chefs as reknowned as Thomas Keller on their cheese menus, and just recently appeared on Martha Stewart. Oh, and did I mention she wrote a book?
The Cheese Chronicles is Liz’s self-proclaimed attempt to trace and document the origins and history of cheesemaking in America. The chapters loosely group together various artisanal cheesemakers into somewhat arbitrary categories such as “Pastured”, “Farmers’ Markets” and “Restaurants”. Within each chapter, Liz describes her visits and experiences with the cheesemakers, their back stories, and of course their products. The cheese operations she features run the gamut from tiny creameries who only sell their cheese locally, to larger, nationally distributed companies such as Cypress Grove, and everything in between. Each chapter has several sidebars that are interesting and informative but tend to interrupt the book’s “flow”, requiring the reader to hop around a lot.
If the book’s organization is its biggest flaw (and it’s a minor one at that), its most shining quality is Liz’s ebullient prose. You can tell that, dammit, this is a woman who loves cheese! While her descriptors sometimes verge on wanky (think snooty wine critic), I can forgive her that because a) let’s face it, there are a limited amount of adjectives one can use when describing cheese flavors, and b) her willingness to go out on a limb just goes to show her enthusiasm. Rather than come across as pretentious or stuffy, Liz’s tasting notes convey the depth of her infatuation and continued excitement for her subject.
With its narrow subject matter, you may think The Cheese Chronicles would only be of interest to a very small minority of food-snob cheese fanatic types, but I think anyone who loves good food and who cares about artisanal production will find something of interest in this book. There are lots of “people stories” here too, so it’s a good balance of factual information and storytelling and never gets dull. Cheesemakers, as it turns out, are a colorful bunch.
I picked up The Cheese Chronicles in part because my burgeoning food curiosity has led me to want to explore whether there might be any feasible careers in food. Having worked in restaurants, I know the life of a chef is not for me, but what about producing and selling a food product? One of the great things about this book is that Liz goes into detail of how each and every producer got started. It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that there are success stories from those who had never had a whit of experience as well as from those who had dairy farming in their blood. I did attend a cheesemaking class at a goat farm recently and am investigating the possibilities of home cheesemaking, so who knows? Meanwhile, I’ve got a new list of must-try cheeses to get my hands on. Expensive, yes, but hey, it could end up being “market research”!
Follow Liz on Twitter: twitter/LizCheese
Anyone who knows me is aware that I love to try new recipes and have a very curious mind when it comes to anything food-related. Lately my curiosity has prompted me to go beyond the kitchen proper and to explore things like charcuterie and cheesemaking. I decided that reading about it wasn’t enough; I wanted to take a cheesemaking class to really see what it was all about. Not much was being offered in my area, but I did find a class on the west side of the state near Grand Rapids, at DogWood Farms. A bit of a drive, but luckily Marvin was into coming with me and making a weekend out of it, so on a rainy late October Friday, we got in the car and headed west.
The class was scheduled for Saturday at 8:00 AM. Marvin and I are not what you would call “morning people”, but we groggily dragged ourselves out of bed at 6:45 and suffered through some terrible hotel coffee, then got in the car for a drizzly half-hour drive in the dim early-morning light. I had no idea what to expect as we drove towards the farm. The website didn’t offer much clue as to the size and scope of cheesemaker Barb Jenness’s operation, and having never visited a dairy or creamery, our minds were a blank slate.
Leaving the freeway far behind, we wound our way down country roads towards the farm. After a bit of a Mapquest snafu, we pulled up the drive and were greeted by Barb’s husband Jim, who informed us that Barb had gone to get some cow’s milk from a farm up the road for the day’s cheesemaking. Barb has a herd of Alpine goats and primarily makes chèvre, but it was too late in the season and the goats were in their drying-off period.
Barb showed up shortly after, and sat down with us for a few minutes to chat. She was very hospitable and had a sampling of cheeses out for us, as well as thick slices of a delicious banana-coconut bread, a welcome sight after the nasty factory muffins on offer at the hotel buffet. We talked to her about why we were there, what we hoped to get out of the class, and discussed the little we did know about cheesemaking. It turned out that we were the only two students that day, which was perfect as it gave us the opportunity to ask any and all questions that came to mind, and gave Marvin the chance to take lots of photos!
Barb’s creamery turned out to be about as tiny as they come, but it was perfect for learning, and for getting an idea of what’s possible on a small scale. Barb had converted a room that was once her laundry room (probably no more than 40-50 square feet) into her cheesemaking room; another space that was little more than a hallway accommodated her packaging area and her “aging cave” (a couple of wine refrigerators rigged to the proper temperature and humidity). Even with just three of us in the cheese room, it was a little tight, and I was glad we were the only students that day.
Given that the goat’s milk was done for the season, we made two cow’s milk cheeses. One was a fresh cheese that Barb called cream cheese, but which bore very little resemblance to the gummy cream cheese in square foil packages. It tasted like the cow equivalent of a chèvre- a mild, creamy, moist and somewhat crumbly cheese with a bit of tanginess to it. She had milk/curd in a couple of the stages of production, and working backwards, showed us the process from the finished cheese to the curd to the milk she had started with. We were able to participate by ladling the curd into molds to drain. It had the same texture as yogurt, when you spoon into it and it releases liquid.
The other cheese we made was a Tomme-style cheese. This one, an aged washed-rind cheese, had a few more steps and involved pasteurizing the milk, cutting the curd, and forming it into blocks. She showed us some bricks of the cheese being aged and it had a ruddy rind that was the result of a paprika and olive oil wash.
Cheesemaking involves a lot of what Barb termed “hurry up and wait” time, where you’re waiting for curd to set, whey to drain, etc. During these “breaks” she would sit us down at her dining room table and go over slides she’d prepared on different aspects of cheese and cheesemaking. Barb was a great teacher and very well-prepared. She had a packet for us to take home that included all of the information given in the class, as well as some recipes, a list of books and websites where cheesemaking supplies could be ordered. She was extremely encouraging and kept asking us if we planned to open a creamery. I certainly have thought about it, although I think Barb has a big advantage not having to own or lease a secondary property for her facility. I’m not sure that would work with my tiny little Ferndale house!
After we were done with the day’s cheese-related activities, we headed out to the barn for a visit with the goats and chickens. After hanging back a bit watching Marvin in the pen photographing Barb, Jim and the goats, I decided to take the plunge. A few goats escaped, but were quickly rounded up by Alice, the resident canine goat-herd. It was hilarious to watch this little dog corral goats twice her size, nipping and barking until they ran back into the pen. Barb looked amused to see us city folk interacting with the livestock, and had a twinkle in her eye as she asked us whether we thought we could have goats of our own. As much as I thought the goats were pretty cool, I doubt this city girl could get the hang of milking and breeding livestock. But Barb assured us that it was perfectly “OK” to just have a creamery and leave the animal-tending to someone else. Phew!
We left the farm with a few of the fresh cheeses as well as some goat’s milk soap I bought from Barb- she’s been in the soapmaking business since before she got into cheese three years ago. Barb urged us to keep in touch about our cheesemaking adventures, and told us to feel free to contact her if we had questions or issues. I was pleasantly surprised at how encouraging she was about starting a cheesemaking business- she went out of her way to tell us about her experiences getting started, how to avoid certain pitfalls, etc. She didn’t get into details about how much she is grossing, but she did tell us how much her cheese sells for (retail and wholesale) and that she easily sells out of everything she produces. She gave me the impression that, while it may not be a way to get rich, you could definitely support yourself.
I plan to try my hand at a few different cheeses at home as soon as I get a chance to order some supplies and figure out a good milk source. I’ll be sure to post about my successes and failures here as I go!
All photographs (except chicken) courtesy of Marvin Shaouni Photography