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Starting with SCOBY December 5, 2013

I admit that I have a weakness for soda.  It isn’t the caffeine or even the sugar… it’s the bubbles.  Over the years, I’ve done a number of things designed to cut down on the amount of pop I consume.  From Lenten fasts to diets, I “give up” my cans of cola at least once a year… only to find myself reverting to them again after a period of time just long enough to prove that I don’t have an addiction.

The real problem with my habit (aside from the caffeine headaches I get each time I quit) is that most sodas contain a high amount of sugar.  I’ve tried a number of “bubbly” substitutes over the years and have, sadly, been disappointed with each.  Simply adding carbonation to a beverage does not make it palatable, nor does substituting an artificial sweetener.  It seemed that I was destined to guzzle pop forever and it wasn’t until I met SCOBY that my aspirations to quit really had a chance..

For those unfamiliar with the term, “SCOBY” is an acronym standing for “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast” and it’s the key ingredient in the oriental drink known as Kombucha.  Essentially a large, non-hallucinogenic mushroom, SCOBY helps to ferment tea, turning it into a bubbly (non-alcoholic) delight.  My first taste resulted in an indescribably state of ecstasy.  I had finally found a substitute for soda!

Of course, buying bottles from the store promised to be an expensive proposition, so I decided to try my hand at brewing my own.  It was a simple process which began with buying a starter SCOBY online.  Once the product arrived, I had merely to brew a tea of my choice.  I began with a gallon of ginger, but soon swapped over to lavender, since I appreciated the subtly sweet taste of the common flower.  A good three tablespoons of buds in a gallon of boiling water was sufficient to infuse the liquid with the desired flavor.

After brewing the tea, I took it off the burner and dumped a cup of sugar into the mix, stirring thoroughly until it was fully dissolved.  This may sound a bit counter intuitive for a low-sugar drink, but it’s an important step, since the bacteria and yeast in the SCOBY must feed off the sugar in order for fermentation to take place.  After a week, the sugar content of the beverage is actually quite low – often 2 grams in 20 ounces!

Waiting until the contents of my pot had cooled to room temperature, I added the liquid to my fermentation jar (actually just a cheap glass candy jar) and placed the SCOBY inside.  (It is important to wait until the liquid cools in order to avoid accidentally killing the SCOBY.)  Because the process moves more quickly at warmer climates, I attached a reptile tank heater which I’d acquired at the local pet store to the outside of the jar and plugged it in.  Then, rubber-banding a piece of cheese cloth over the jar, I waited.  A week later, I had a full gallon of my soda substitute, ready for refrigeration.

While my family still refuses to imbibe my “experiment”, the simple process yields infinite possibilities and it doesn’t take long before drinkers like myself find ourselves experimenting with fermentation time (longer = tangier) and varied mixtures of herbs.  Each brew has its own unique qualities and, while you won’t get the same consistency from one batch to the next, the journey is half the fun.  I heartily encourage everyone to give it a try, if only by purchasing a bottle at their local health food store.  If you already brew your own, please feel free to share some of your favorite mixtures in the comment box below.  Adventures are always best when shared!

*This blog is designed to be informational only.  Readers understand that they are wholly responsible for their own actions and that the author bares no responsibility for the use or misuse of the information contained herein.


Featuring Fermentation: A Sauerkraut Primer September 26, 2013

Filed under: Cuisine,Fermentation,German,Homesteading — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

It started with a copy of “Urban Farm” magazine.  Or more precisely, with an offer for “Urban Farm”.  I wouldn’t have considered myself incurably in love with the publication, but every now and then, when I saw it on a news stand, I’d pick up a copy.  Since this happened a couple times each year and the advertisement I had just received offered a full year’s subscription for the price of those two issues, I figured it was worth the investment.

The first issue arrived and it didn’t take me long to recognize that “fermentation” was the running theme.  To be honest, I’d never considered just how many of the foods I enjoyed started with this particular form of decomposition.  And when I read instructions for making my own sauerkraut, I thought I’d give it a try.

I started with the rudimentary instructions provided and forgoing the investment of a fermentation crock, picked up a small crockpot instead.  The ceramic dish would hold a small amount of cabbage and would (according to my best estimations) make enough kraut for a single meal.  After grating a head of cabbage, I layered it into the dish – interspersing each layer with a generous helping of kosher sea salt.  Packing the contents as tightly as I could, I set the dish aside on the counter to let the salt work its magic.  Within several hours, a brine had formed and the fermentation had begun.

Over the next several days, I watched the dish carefully.  Not panicking when pink mold appeared on top, I removed the effected cabbage and continued with my experiment.  About a week in, it was evident that all was not well.  The pink mold had spread from the top and the entire project had to be abandoned.

Not to be deterred, I fell back upon the old adage that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  And, in this case, doing it right involved some shopping.  Popping online to www.Amazon.com, I selected a TSM 20 Liter Stone Weight and a 55 liter TSM Fermentation Pot.  (My family consumes a great deal of sauerkraut, but it wasn’t until the pot arrived that I realized just how big a 55 liter pot actually is!)

The day came when the pot appeared on my porch and I was delighted to discover that the online pictures did not do justice to the work of art that sat before me in my living room.  Handmade in Poland, the crock looked elegant enough to sit in the same room with honored guests… and thanks to a water reservoir at the top (a feature missing from my tiny crock pot), could do so without the offensive aroma produced by the latter.

After taking a day or two to admire my new acquisition, I purchased a handful of cabbages (8, to be precise), chunked them up and, once more interspersed them with salt.  This proved more of a challenge than I had anticipated, since 8 heads of cabbage neatly fill a 55 liter pot to the brim and it took a little effort to fit my stone weight inside the container!  I then left the ingredients to do their work.

A day later, a brine had formed and, seeing that it was insufficient to cover the top of the cabbage, I topped it off with some cool tap water (enough to completely cover the cabbage).  I filled the reservoir with water and it wasn’t long before the pot was burping away, venting the excess gas created by the fermentation process.

I waited a few weeks until the contents of the pot had settled down (now filling the crock just half way) and snuck a forkful.  The kraut which greeted me was smooth and buttery, lacking in the stringy texture or vinegary bite of the store-bought stuff.  We gave it a first try in a quick pressure cooker dish which I have enjoyed since childhood and the entire family agreed that the experiment was a victory.  Now, my only problem is finding a way to use 2 gallons of sauerkraut in a hurry!


How a Bit of Jewish History Resulted in a Culinary Obsession August 15, 2013

Cooking was not my thing.  Everyone knew it.  No one questioned it.  If it didn’t come in a can or a microwaveable package, it was out.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t cook (at least that wasn’t the prevailing opinion) so much as that I wouldn’t cook.  It took too much time to prepare a meal and, while I wasn’t as inept as my father who had once tried to make stew by intentionally failing to dilute soup concentrate with water (a recipe for a sodium-induced heart-attack), it was generally assumed (at least by me) that my skills were lacking.

This all changed, however, when a course on Old Testament history led to a fascination with the Jewish feasts.  I admit that the messianic imagery in each celebration intrigued me and it wasn’t too long before I decided to share my enthusiasm with my family through the only rational means: food.  Borrowing a copy of Faye Levy’s 1,000 Jewish Recipes(a gift I had given to my mother years earlier), I set about selecting a menu for the upcoming holiday of Purim – the celebration of the Jewish deliverance from Haman as recounted in the book of “Esther”.

To say that it was faintly ambitious is a bit of an understatement.  With multiple courses including corned beef (which I would be “corning” myself) and an attempt at pastry in the form of “Haman’s Hats”, the outcome was less than assured.  (I had watched for years as my mother had worked to create the “perfect” pie crust and was under no misimpression that “light and fluffy” was the result of accident or chance!)  Still, the day came and I entered the kitchen with an unprecedented level of confidence and determination.

My mother had once observed that cooking was like chemistry; just follow the directions (within a certain margin of variation) and the result will at least be edible.  Not surprisingly, Mom’s observations turned out to be correct.  I measured each ingredient with unparalleled precision and, when I finished, I had created a feast of culinary delights.  The entire house was flooded with the aroma of a true Jewish feast… or at least as true a feast as could be made in my non-kosher kitchen.

Unfortunately, in my effort to ensure flawless “mixing magic”, I had failed to take into account one other vital meal-planning skill: timing.  As dinner time approached, I became increasingly aware of the fact that I had forgotten to figure preparation time into my cooking times (math was never my strong suit).  While the dishes all smelled wonderful, not all of them were hot (or finished).  I quickly alerted my family to the difficulty and received a pass.  (I think they figured that if the food was edible, it didn’t really matter if the meal was an hour and an half late and served one dish at a time.)

On the whole, my Purim feast was quite a success (the demands of my family that we forgo reading the traditional text in favor of avoiding starvation, aside) and I walked away having proven the old saying that “timing is everything.”  Oh, and I made one more valuable discovery: I LOVE to cook!  The Purim meal was just the start of my culinary adventures and my family has now been introduced to everything from Indian food to homemade sushi.  All this just goes to prove that a little history lesson can result in a globe-spanning adventure!


On Eating Artichokes (And Why You Should Know How to Eat One Before Serving Them to Your Family) August 8, 2013

I admit it: I love Martha Stewart.  Years ago, my mother gave me a copy of “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook: The Essential Guide to Caring for Everything in Your Home” and I haven’t looked back since.  I devoured the volume, reading it cover-to-cover as I constructed a well-conceived “chore list” which, if followed, would leave my home looking as nice as Martha’s or (dare I even consider it?) my mother’s.

Several years later, my mother made a gift of “Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook” and I was equally delighted.  It wasn’t long before I was cooking like a pro and officially “worshipping” at the altar of Martha Stewart.  The result was that when I walked into the book store and saw a table filled with copies of “Martha’s American Food: A Celebration of Our Nation’s Most Treasured Dishes, from Coast to Coast”, I was immediately enamored.  I reverently picked up a copy and began to leaf through the pages, salivating over dishes like “Grilled Chicken with Spicy Peach Glaze”, “Grilled Bacon-Wrapped White Fish”, and “Grilled Artichokes with Lemon-Oregano Mayonnaise”.

Quickly glancing at the sign above the table, I noted (much to my delight) that the volume was being offered at a special price when purchased in conjunction with a second book of my own choosing.  This seemed the perfect excuse to pick up a copy of “The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs” – a volume which I had been eyeing for over a year.  I left the book store with both volumes securely in my possession and set out for the grocery store to purchase the ingredients for the “Grilled Artichokes with Lemon-Oregano Mayonnaise.”

Of course, the one thing that I did not consider when selecting this recipe was that neither I nor anyone in my immediate family had ever eaten an artichoke.  It wasn’t that green vegetables were rare at our table (I consumed my fair share of peas, green beans, and… ick… broccoli) just that artichokes had never been on the menu.  I carefully followed all of the directions, whisking together the delicious lemon-oregano mayonnaise, then proceeded to the baffling armored vegetable which would serve as our main course.

Removing the outer leaves (even with a pair of razor sharp shears) proved to be a challenge and I confess to being a bit confused when each layer of foliage revealed yet another.  It was as if I were trying to unwrap one of my father’s Christmas gifts: peeling off one layer of paper and opening the box just to find yet another wrapped box nestled inside.  Finally, after paring one artichoke down to the point where there was nearly nothing left, I realized that it was only the visible leaves which needed to be removed.  (This fortunate realization prevented the other artichokes from suffering a sad fate as kitchen refuse and my family from the equally-tragic fate of going without dinner!)

Next, I sliced each artichoke in half, coming face to face with yet another obstacle: the inside of each vegetable was filled with fuzzy “baby leaves”.  In fact, so much of what I presumed to be “the heart” was devoted to these that I found myself wondering how much of the vegetable was actually edible to begin with!  Were any of us really hungry enough to warrant the laborious disassembly of such a cleverly designed plant?

My project, however, was now in full-force and there was no turning back.  Taking a spoon to the fluffy filling, I quickly scooped out the inedible portion, then popped the prepared artichokes onto the grill.  In a matter of minutes, they were ready to be displayed upon a bed of fresh prosciutto.  I served up the meal and watched in delight as my family took knife and fork to it… or at least tried to.

“I don’t think this is right,” my sister observed, after a moment.

I watched as she chewed the still-tough leaves like a bit of gristle.

“Artichokes are supposed to be easier to eat than this.”

My mother agreed and my fiancé shrugged.

“We should Google “How to eat an artichoke”,” someone suggested.

It was such a brilliant idea that I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it myself.  My mother quickly grabbed her iPad and typed in the search parameters.

What we found was this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL4RaoSaHu4, a brief and insightful video which explained that we were doing it all wrong.  As it turns out, the armored leaves aren’t edible at all (though according to the medical site that my mother found after we watched the video, the only real danger to anyone who eats the foliage is constipation).  Instead, it is the soft flesh at the base of the leaves which is so deeply prized.  And dipped into a lemon-oregano mayonnaise, it’s even better!  The meal was fabulous and ended with a valuable reminder to look before you eat; using Google isn’t nearly as difficult as eating artichoke leaves!


The Habanjero Sushi Incident of 2013 June 27, 2013

Filed under: Cuisine,Sushi — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: , ,

I have to admit that when my sister first suggested that we go for sushi, I was a touch repulsed.  Her experience with the exotic food had been limited to a brief stay at the Seattle International Airport and I couldn’t help wondering whether her love of the rolled rice was more the result of the need to fill her stomach than actual affection.  Still, she insisted and, after some effort, I managed to convince myself that eating raw fish just once probably wouldn’t kill me.  She selected us a well-respected local sushi bar renowned for its “fusion cuisine” and we set off.

I admit that I was a bit surprised to discover that there was much more to sushi than I had originally imagined.  While sushi rolls are actually quite recent (dating to 1824), the Japanese art of seafood preservation goes back two millennia to a time when fishermen sought to maintain the freshness of their stock sometimes for a period of several months.  Hats off to the genius who came up with the idea of using rice (a natural desiccant) and vinegar and, in the process, accidentally invented a worldwide culinary phenomena!

It is to the rice (not the fish) which the word “sushi” actually refers, so if you visit a local sushi bar, you’re likely to discover a nice range of appetizing tidbits for even the most squeamish.  (I recommend letting the chef know that you’re new to sushi and allowing him to make some appropriate recommendations.)  Cooked seafood is a common ingredient as are vegetables, though I would encourage anyone to try a spicy tuna roll just once.  (These actually became one of my favorites after I discovered that, unlike regular supermarket filets, sashimi grade fish are flash-frozen upon capture: a practice which prevents the growth of bacteria and preserves the fresh, crisp flavor of the seafood.)

The local sushi bar quickly became a lunch-time favorite and their “vision rolls” which were each a unique creation of the on-duty chef were a must-have staple of every outing.  Each roll was graded by “heat-level” only and this is where what my sister and I affectionately refer to as “The Habanjero Sushi Incident of 2013” really begins.

On our previous trips, my sister elected to experiment with the heat scale and determined that a 7 was not quite hot enough and that a 9 was much hotter than she enjoyed – so it only made sense that on this particular day, she ordered an 8 which, like Goldilocks, she anticipated would be “just right”.  Of course, the difficulty with a heat scale is that “hotness” (unless you’re referring to an actual thermometer reading or the Scoville scale used to measure the heat of individual chili peppers) is quite relative.

Our sushi rolls arrived and, grabbing her chopsticks, she quickly spread wasabi over the top of her vision roll and popped a piece into her mouth.  What happened next can only be equated to a scene from a cartoon.  My sister’s usually cheerful smile wavered, all the color drained from her face, and steam began to blow out of her ears.  Sweat poured from her brow as she grabbed for her water, hoarsely uttering the immortal words, “What’s in this????!!!!!”

I frowned, certain that the sushi couldn’t be quite that hot, and readily accepted her offer of a piece.  I have to admit that it had an excellent balance of flavor, the enjoyment of which only briefly preceded the sensation that an atomic bomb had been set off in my mouth.  It was clear that the chef on duty either didn’t know that the number 8 came before the number 10 or that he had a vendetta against anyone seeking the perfectly spicy roll of sushi.

With more than a little curiosity, my sister and I began to pick the roll apart to determine exactly what had been placed inside.  Along with the standard fish (which neither of us had been able to taste), we came up with more wasabi (a relative of horseradish), sriracha (a blended chili sauce), jalapeno peppers, and… habaneros.  The combination was explosive.

While my sister (now pale as a vampire) fought with stomach problems, I finished the roll.  All of this, of course, only goes to prove that sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we expect it to.  Turns out, I do like raw fish!


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