Monday, June 27, 2011

Milk Gone Wild

Thank you so much to all of you who took the time to comment on my last post. It was very encouraging! I haven't abandoned the blog; I've just been busy with day camp at church and letting ideas percolate. I'm ready to hit you with my first hippie post!

The elementary school I attended was set up in an unusual way. Outside the old stone building was the standard playground with monkey bars, tetherball poles, and four-square lines painted on the cracked blacktop. There was also a large field area with a diamond for playing kickball (or my version, trip over the ball), and a track (on which one could barf up a lung running the 600). This area was separated from the school by a very busy 4 lane street.

I'm not sure which brilliant planner thought that was a good idea, but they avoided having to scrape little kids off the street by installing a tunnel under the street. On each side of the street was an entrance with doors that could be locked, stairs that descended to a dark, dank tunnel, and stairs that led to freedom on the other side. Well, relative freedom. The misery of sports awaited on one side and the purgatory of math and spelling tests waited on the other.

I digress.

The point was that the tunnel was a closed environment. And the worst thing imaginable was if a child, say one hurrying to run home on a Friday afternoon, dropped his or her milk carton in the tunnel. And it stayed there all weekend, leaking, and getting nasty. The first kids to use the tunnel on Monday morning were hit by a wave of stomach-turning putrid milk smell, and there was no escaping it. You had to hold your breath and run all the way across, hoping that no tender-tummied child added their morning bowl of Lucky Charms to the odor melange. Because if one did, they all did. And that smell would merit hazardous duty pay to the poor janitor who got to go down there to clean it up.

I've had that smell memory in my mind all these years and it was with amazement that I learned that milk doesn't necessarily go bad when it's left unrefrigerated. It's only pasteurized milk that putrifies. Raw milk, milk which hasn't been pasteurized, will sour, but it's not the same stomach-heaving smell that I associate with kick ball.

My daughter, queen of nutrition research, started telling me about raw milk and it's benefits last year. She told me about how pastuerized milk is not good for you, and convinced me to try raw milk. I was initially skeptical. Isn't pasteurization a good thing, done to protect milk drinkers? Won't drinking raw milk make me sick? After some research and a little logical thinking, I realized that people have been drinking raw milk a lot longer than pasteurization has been around. If raw milk was deadly, people would have stopped drinking milk altogether.

(Caveat - to be healthful, raw milk must come from grass-fed cows that are healthy. If you drink the milk that is destined for pasteurization before it's pasteurized, that's very risky. Much lower standards of hygiene are called for in non-raw milk dairy cows, and those cows can have antibiotics, growth hormones, or pus in their milk.)

There is friendly bacteria in raw milk which is really important for gut health, and those friendly bacteria do some amazing things. When raw milk has soured, you can leave it at room temperature and something magic happens. The milk separates into two layers, one semi-solid, and one clearish. The clearish layer is whey and it is chock-full of fabulous bacteria which can be used to lacto-ferment.

What is lacto-fermenting? Basically it is letting the friendly bacteria convert the starches and sugars in food into lactic acid. This preserves the food and makes it tremendously beneficial to your gut health, as well. I have previously lacto-fermented, even though I didn't know I was doing it. Yogurt is lacto-fermented milk!

My first attempt at lacto-fermenting with my raw milk whey was this fabulous bean dip. This is one of the times I long for the advent of scratch and sniff technology for computer monitors. Pictures of bean dip just don't adequately convey the full tangy, garlicky allure of this dip. One scoop of it on your favorite chip or veggie and you'll quickly come back for more. You'll just have to trust me and try it.

If you are not fortunate enough to live in a state where raw milk is available (don't get me started on a rant about why our government thinks that staging raids on Amish dairy farmers who sell raw milk is a priority for our tax dollars!), you can use the liquid that separates from yogurt as your fermenting agent.

Lacto-Fermented Bean Dip
- from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon

2 generous cups black beans (you can also use kidney, pinto, or white beans)
warm, filtered water (Chlorinated tap water will kill your helpful bacteria)
2 Tbsp whey or lemon juice(not necessary for the other types of beans)
1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
4-6 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp sea salt
4 Tbsp whey

1- In a large bowl, cover beans with warm water. The water level should be well above the beans, as the beans will absorb water and swell. Stir in the whey or lemon juice, and leave in a warm place 12-24 hours.

2- Drain, rinse, place in a large pot and add water to cover the beans. Bring to a boil and skim off the foam. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 4-8 hours. Check occasionally and add more water as necessary. The beans are done when they will mash easily.

3- With a slotted spoon, scoop out and measure 3 cups of the beans. (Save the rest of the beans in liquid, covered, in the refrigerator and I'll tell you next post an idea on how to use them.)

4- Place the onion and garlic into a food processor. Process until well chopped. Add the 3 cups cooked beans, sea salt, and whey. Process until smooth. Place the bean purée into a 1 quart glass jar, leaving at least 1-inch of headroom at the top. If you have extra bean purée, put it into a smaller glass jar, leaving at least 1-inch headroom.

5- Cover tightly with a lid and leave at room temperature for about 3 days. If your room temperature is on the coolish side, place the jar in a warm spot. I have under-cupboard lights which make an ideal warming spot inside the cupboard.

6- Check the jar daily. At first there will be no signs of activity. After 2 to 3 days, you should start to see little pockets forming in the purée. As the pockets grow, the level of the dip rises. If it starts rising dramatically, it can force liquid out of the lid, so keep an eye on it and scoop some out to another jar, if you need to.

7- Once the dip has fermented, transfer it to the refrigerator or cool storage. Enjoy with your favorite chips or veggies, spread it inside a taco, or eat it by the spoonful!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Out Of The Closet

Yesterday I was at Costco and I ran into a friend of my daughter's. She commented that I hadn't been writing much lately. Um, yeah.... sorry about that.

First of all, I've been on vacation. We went to a friend's condo at Lake Las Vegas and soaked up Vitamin D for a week. It was awesome and I highly recommend it.

Secondly, I've been running out of steam on the blog for a while now. I feel like I'm in a death spiral of no motivation = fewer postings = less feedback = no motivation.

And thirdly, and most importantly, I've changed. I've been blogging for four years now and in that time the way I cook, what I cook, and the way I look at food has changed a lot. A lot of the food in my earlier postings I just wouldn't make today.

It's been a combination of exposure to other food bloggers and my daughter's relentless quest to learn about nutrition that has led me to this point. And now I feel it's time to come out of the closet. Here's the big reveal.......I'm a suburban hippie.

I buy organic. Whenever possible I make food myself. I have jars of strange food/science projects on my counter and in my cupboards bubbling, fermenting, and growing strange pond scum on top. And most importantly, as it relates to my blog, I've cut way back on sugar. The cookie jar is frequently empty. I only bake when I know I'll be able to give most of it away, as I've become convinced of the negative health consequences of eating lots of sugar.

This might seem like a weird detour in my life, if you only know me superficially, but it's actually a logical progression. I've always had quite a bit of hippie in me. My babies were all midwife-attended births, 3 of them at home. I've washed enough cloth diapers to fill a landfill (but they don't). I nursed my babies an average of 2 years (Sarah brought the average down quite a bit, and I apologize for that, honey). My primary care physician is a chiropractor. It's only logical that I should start to care about the quality of food that I put into myself and my family.

What does this mean for Cookie Baker Lynn? I had thought about having a complete blog overhaul, maybe changing my name to My Hippie Kitchen (already taken), and focusing only on the weird things I'm experimenting with in my kitchen. But really, I'm still me. And I still love to bake. So it's going to be a mix. Some of the evil white sugar stuff I'm known for, as well as some of my hippie living stuff. And I'll throw in some health and nutrition rants occasionally, just to see if I can't shake off those two remaining commenters.

So, before you delete me forever from your RSS feed, what do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, June 6, 2011

New and Improved

I'm something of a cynic. When companies advertise a product as "New and Improved!!," it always smacks to me of a desperate attempt to palm off a shoddy piece of goods, claiming, "It's not nearly as nasty as it used to be!" If it wasn't broken in the first place, why fix it?

There are some recipes in my repertoire that I would never dream of tinkering with. Why mess with perfection? But sometimes, life happens and where before you had perfection, you now have something you never dreamed possible - an improvement.

I've been struggling with what to do for my kids' teachers for a year-end thank you gift. I homeschool my kids (and, no, I'm not looking for an excuse to buy myself another cookbook), but I also take them once a week to a homeschool co-op. The excellent teachers who've been trying all year to instruct my children deserve at least a little thank you.

It wasn't until the last day of class that I decided what to do. Cookies. (Well, duh, I really should have thought of that weeks ago.) I woke up early and assessed that I had enough time to bake a batch of my Fabulous Brownie Cookies. They're easy and have a good effort to results ratio. So at 5:30 in the morning I'm melting chocolate, measuring flour, getting the eggs out, and, oh, giant leaping dust bunnies! The recipe calls for 4 eggs and I only have 3!

A quick internet search provided multiple options for egg substitutions (most of them nasty), but fruit puree sounded promising. Since I'd had such good results using date puree in these cookies, I decided to go with that. A quick 20 minute soak of the dates, pureeing with my hand-held blender, and I was back on track.

We have to be out the door at 8:00 and at 7:30, the kids were scarfing down breakfast while I was stamping white paper bags, stuffing them with cookies, tying on bows, still in my pajamas. Miraculously, we made it out the door on time. And the cookies? Really good. In fact, really, really good. Still deliciously rich, chocolatey, and brownielike, but with an added depth of flavor and an extra oomph of texture, these are clear winners. So I guess new and improved doesn't always mean "less nasty." Sometimes it really does mean "more fabulous!"

Even More Fabulous Brownie Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3 cups semisweet chocolate chips, divided
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
3 Tbsp date puree*
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups chopped pecans, toasted

*Directions for making your own date purée here.

In a large, heavy saucepan combine butter, unsweetened chocolate, and 1-1/2 cups chocolate chips. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until butter and chocolate melt; set aside and cool.

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Beat eggs sugar, and vanilla in a medium mixing bowl at medium speed with an electric mixer. Gradually add flour mixture to egg mixture, beating well. Add chocolate mixture; beat well. Stir in remaining 1-1/2 cups chocolate chips and pecans. I used my medium scoop (1-3/4" across) to drop blobs of dough (about 2 Tbsp) 2 inches apart onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes. Don't overbake - the cookies should just loose their sheen on top, but still be moist. Let them set on the cookie sheets for a few minutes (they will continue to bake a bit), then remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

strawberry rhubarb crisp

In the 4th grade my teacher asked the class how many of us had grandparents living. I was one of the few in the class to raise my hand for having all four living. (Yes, I know, many people now in the age of blended or redefined families have 16 or so people they call grandparents, but back then, 4 was the normal maximum.) Many of my friends had only 1 or 2 grandparents living and this made gave me a strange impression that grandparents were ephemeral creatures who might at any time disappear without warning.

I decided that since time with the grandparents was obviously fleeting, I'd better invest in the relationships as much as was possible. Given that we all lived in different states, I started a letter writing campaign. I strove to write to my grandparents at least once a week, although it ended up being probably closer to once a month.

I would write long, chatty notes about what I was doing in school, my tough homework assignments, my dance classes, the boys I thought were cute, the onerous camping trips we went on, my bouts of stomach flu, and the funny things the dog did. In return I'd get nice, fulsome letters detailing their gardens.

Their letters would give status updates on the runner beans, how the tomatoes were coming along, and the awful things that late spring cold snap had done to the apricot blossoms. I decided that being an old person meant your life was extremely boring and you had nothing to live for except your garden.

My sister and I shared this view of gardening obsession and nodded knowingly to each other when our father's letters started being mainly garden-related. Yes, he was turning into an old person. Sure he can grow beans, carrots, and tomatoes like nobody's business, but it's kind of sad when you have nothing else to write about.

Then my sister and I were exchanging emails this past week, catching up on our schedules, the weather in our respective states, and how said weather was affecting our....gardens. Yes, it's true. We're old people now, too.

Luckily, I still have challenging, bewildering, frustrating, amazing, frustrating, and wonderful children to give me things to think about besides my garden. I say luckily because I'm a lousy gardener. Anything that goes into the ground is on its own out there. It had better be tough, hardy, and able to withstand unarmed assaults by armies of slugs. (Well, they don't have arms, do they? Just nasty, slimy feet and voracious, munching jaws.)

When my grandchildren write to me, I'm sure they'll be thrilled to hear back from me the details of how the blueberries, oregano, and rhubarb are doing, because that's all that survive my harsh gardening techniques (plant it and ignore it). Hopefully, they won't even have to have me write about it. If they live close enough, they can come over and pick blueberries to munch, oregano to put on a pizza, and rhubarb to put into a crisp. Because, really, wouldn't you rather eat from a garden than hear about it?

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp

4 cups fresh rhubarb, 1-inch diced (4 to 5 stalks)
4 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
1 cups granulated sugar, divided
1 Tbsp Stevia Extract (not pure Stevia)*
1-1/2 tsp grated orange zest
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup all-purpose flour (you can substitute 1/2 with white whole wheat flour)
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) oats
12 Tbsp (1-1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

*I buy the kind that's cut with lactose for table use. It's available at Trader Joe's. If you can only find pure Stevia, use about 1/4 tsp.

1- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with rack in the center of the oven.

2- Toss together the rhubarb, strawberries, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, stevia, and the orange zest in a large bowl. In a measuring cup, dissolve the cornstarch in the orange juice and then mix it into the fruit. Pour the mixture into an 8 x 11-inch baking dish and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper to catch drips, in case the crisp bubbles over.

3- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar, the brown sugar, salt, and oatmeal. With the mixer on low speed, add the butter and mix until the dry ingredients are moist and the mixture is in crumbles.

4- Sprinkle the topping over the fruit, covering it completely, and bake for 1 hour, until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.