Instant Yeast & Other Wonders…A Second Try

In my 20s, when I dabbled in vegetarianism, Diet for a Small Planet was something of the holy book. In those days,  I baked most of the bread I ate with Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book guiding the way .  Then real life intervened with work and higher education and other interests, and I drifted in to the world of industrial eating: plenty of meat, white sugar, and processed flour.

Now, a whole series of books has led me back to those early days of real food, and I’m finding that the farm environment only makes it seem more sensible. Not to mention a not-so-much-older friend whose failed stress test led to a strict vegan diet and just a general desire to feel better and lose some weight.   I suppose it started with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma coupled with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  They were stark reminders of just how far away I personally had moved away from my own convictions when it came to what I put in my mouth.  And the baking impulse can be traced to browsing the King Arthur Flour’s whole grains baking book, fondly remembering the wonders of bread baking and the enticing smell and nutty taste of whole wheat bread.

The most recent book came from the Green Valley Book Fair in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I wandered through the wooden tables and made it across the walkway to foods and crafts.  And there was Mark Bittman’s The Food Matters Cook Book.  I was taken immediately by his pragmatic tone…he still eats meat but is trying to be less meatatarian.  He has adopted a different relationship to meat and that has made the difference.  His wonderful recipes celebrate all the foods that often take a back seat to the protein and in the section on baking, I found his amazingly simple whole wheat bread recipe that called for something my friend of the King Arthur book had also mentioned: instant yeast.

What a concept.  How many bricks have I baked when the yeast failed to rise?  Even a short flirtation with a bread machine did not make things any more consistent unless I used a mix.  I found sour dough bread to be fool proof but after months of eating it, my husband begged for something else and that really was the end of my bread baking days.

But now I’m back, with two loaves of bread under my belt just this week.  I baked them with the instant yeast, and both of them–one made with white and one made with whole wheat–turned out perfectly.  I can’t wait to get into the kitchen and try something else: maybe some whole wheat hamburger buns.

I’m also experimenting with a healthy muffin recipe as a vehicle for all the strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in the freezer.  My friend on the strict diet ate three of the most recent attempt that included oats, whole wheat, apple sauce and agave nectar instead of the white stuff (flour, sugar) and vegetable oil.  They could have been a bit moister but other than that were quite good with nice flavor and texture.  I sent the rest of the batch home with them and made whole wheat scone with raisins for us to eat this weekend.

And so, the bakery at Bottle Tree Farm is born.

Making Cheese: First Mozarella

Every since reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, last summer, I have been longing to make my own cheese. I finally got around to ordering the cheesemaking kit from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company this spring. The instruction suggest keeping a cheesemaking journal and I thought it might be helpful to do that online so others might benefit from my experiences.

Here’s the report of my first attempt. I am happy to say it worked out great. I had decided the for the first time, I would follow the exact directions provided in the kit. I used whole milk since that’s what Ricki, the Cheese Queen, recommended. You cannot use ultra-pasteurized milk as it doesn’t have the necessary live cultures. I discovered that my usual grocery story did not carry any milk that wasn’t ultra-pasteurized, even its organic brand. I ended up at the specialty store in town where I found lots of milk that was homogenized and pasteurized. I bought a gallon of whole milk in a returnable glass bottle from a local dairy. I also bought distilled water since my public water supply is treated with chlorine. My husband suggested that I could use our tap water if I let it sit overnight. I may try that later, but I have a gallon of distilled water and the recipe only uses a little of it so I’m good to go for awhile.

I won’t go through each step as you can find them online and my experience was very similar. The one major difference I had was that, after waiting the suggested 3 to 5 minutes, my curds did not form a solid mass that could be cut into pieces. I waited for another few minutes but still had curds floating in the whey. According to the website, I may need to heat my milk to 100 degrees rather than the suggested 90 degrees. And, I may just need to be more patient.

I was able to scoop out my curds so I moved ahead with the instructions and was rewarded with a lovely ball of fresh mozarella cheese. It was delicious! The only place I deviated from the recipe was that I used about half of the cheese salt. The salt is actually optional but I wanted to add a bit of that flavor.

I am planning to make more on Sunday morning. This time, in an effort to reduce the fat content, I am going to use half whole milk and half 2 percent milk to see how that works. Ricki suggests that I can use low fat milk but the flavor will be reduced so I am also going to work in some of my fresh rosemary and basil from the garden along with the cheese salt.

I was so happy with my experience that I gave a kit as a birthday gift for a friend. It really did just take 30 minutes and I had a product that costs nearly $9/pound in my store! We ate some of it and used the rest for pizza along with our homemade tomato sauce from the freezer. I’m planning to use tomorrow’ batch for a pasta recipe.

Wednesday Morning

The dogs let me sleep until almost 7:30! We walked, ate, let the chickens out…all the morning chores. Now, I’m at my desk and I rearranged the monitor so I can see the whole backyard. The hummingbirds returned the minute I put up the feeders on Saturday. Better stock up on sugar! I’m also keeping an eye out for chickens. They figured out how to get over the fence somehow and have been whacking away at my herb garden. One parsley plant was completely obliterated–just a hole where it used to be. They also tore up the two dill plants my husband gave me. I think he’s got more back in the green house.

My lunch date canceled for today so that makes these morning hours less crucial for work. I did two hours of research work yesterday first thing. Now, I have three memos to write, another interview to transcribe and then an interview this afternoon as well. Been fooling around with recording phone calls and ended up buying a speaker phone. The iPod picks it up ok plus with a phone interview, I can type while we talk. I also bought a little $8 suction cup from Radio Shack that sticks on the receiver and then feeds into the analog recorder. I’ll put that on the phone as well. You really can’t be too careful.

I rewarded myself for all the research work by playing some more with Flash. It is coming back to me and I’ve got one module for a “what food when” game to learn about Jewish holidays. I’m going to start a new one about holidays that include lights. These are samples for a client. No huge bells and whistles but some animation and music.

It’s been nice to be home the last few days. I can putter and get things done on my own time. I’ve got a running “to do” list and managed to check a few things off of it. Put in a big Amnesty International order for my nephew’s birthday and may make a few CDs from vinyl for him, too. I’m hoping to be off doing research next week so am making the most of being at home.

I was going to make chicken salad for lunch. I think I’ll turn those chicken breasts into tortilla soup instead. And I’ve got turkey and potato rolls for turkey burgers. I’ll do those tonight and then make the soup in the crock pot tomorrow. We have folks coming for wine and snacks and I think I’m going to try home backed tortilla chips again. I have a big stack of tortillas to work with. Mostly I’m trying to work with what I’ve got so I can avoid leaving the house until Friday morning when I head to a workshop.

I’ve been feeling pretty lousy the last two or three days so gave myself off from WW. I need to get back on the plan, though. Mostly I’ve eaten cheese: I really miss it! Big chunks dipped in mustard and eaten with crackers. Yum! I haven’t written anything down for at least two days and I’m aware of how the act of recording does keep me from overeating. So, today I’m shooting for a 26 point day. So far, I’ve only had coffee so I’m on track.

Blessings to all!

A Glorious Day

I spent three nights in a hotel room this week. I slept better than I usually do and got a lot of work done, but I was ready for a day off today. After a bit of work this morning (mostly chatting with two colleagues), I headed outside and started transplanting perennials. I moved some phlox from a spot that has gotten shady over the years. But I also just relocated some plants and even worked on the herb garden, which had been worked over by the chickens before we fenced them out. I earned somewhere between 12 and 16 exercise points for WW so I am having two glasses of wine. And, dinner will be pretty healthy: skinless chicken breasts in Trader Joe’s curry sauce and rice and a salad.

My husband is the real gardener is the family and is considering signing up for the master gardener program in our town. But I like digging in the dirt, too, and am generally in charge of the flower beds, of which we have 4 major areas. I’ve been working on them slowly over the past several years, moving things, dividing things, and I think this will be the best year ever. I’m going to buy a few herbs tomorrow: basil and basil seeds, thyme, and a pineapple sage. I’ll get just a few annuals for the barrels in the front.

The only thing I haven’t accounted for is zinnias. I used to do them in the garden beside the front path but I’ve made that almost completely perennials and is a more “controlled” atmosphere. Maybe I can get my husband to dig up a plot in the front yard, where we are trying to reduce the amount of grass. I could just sow a swatch of them. I’ve got a big bag of seeds from last year and may get a few more tomorrow.

Aah…my window is open and I’m looking out on the back yard as usual. There are still chores to be done. The birds need fed after four days, and I should make hummingbird food and put those feeders out. But I think that shall be tomorrow’s job. A very small chickadee just stopped at the feeder for a sunflower seed then headed off to eat it. Simple but elegant and always exciting to have birds just a foot or so away.

I drank my first glass of wine sitting in the backyard reading Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow, the second in a series of books about the relationship of England and Wales.  I’m going to both those places in October and have a pile to read, including The Other Boleyn Girl on my Kindle.

I’m on my second glass of wine. I can hear a dove cooing in the woods. There’s that chickadee again and then the flutter of his wings as he heads off with his seed. I know I’ll have to work tomorrow, mostly on research stuff, but today was indeed a glorious day!

Living in the Past

I had an amazingly productive day yesterday.  We finished the taxes!  That’s the biggie: this is the first year we are doing them ourselves after having accountants for many years.  I followed along closely last year and am using TurboTax and feel fairly confident about the whole thing.  We’re getting an extension so at some point, I’ll print the whole packet and review it against last year’s to see what different.  Here’s an interesting thing: we only got the standard deduction even though in the past we’ve itemized.  Just not enough medical stuff or mortgage interest on this old house to get us over the hump.  We could do more charities, although I think we give a lot for our income.

I made chicken legs General Tsao style and a potato herb frittata for dinner.  As a post-tax treat, I made baked tortilla chips in the convection oven.  They were very good and since I used spray, I think they were very low in calories.

I also got a lot of little things off my to do list in preparation for travel.  I decided to drive west tonight for a few hours so tomorrow morning is a bit more leisurely.  I was not looking forward to being on the road at 6 AM and 8 hours in the car.  I’ve got something else to do so I’ll stay over until Wednesday as well.  My bags are packed; I’m ready to go.

The main point of this post is to record a quote from Annie Dillard’s The Living, which I finished last week.  It has been raining here for three or four days and I feel like I’m in the Pacific Northwest without the views of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker hovering always on the horizon.  The novel focuses on the history of the Bellingham, Washington, area and follows the pioneer families through several generations.  It was superb, really, with startling metaphors woven into its sometimes spare historical narrative.

But, I’m giving it up.  Taking it to the Book Exchange with several others including the Carl Hiassen (Double Whammy) I finished this morning.  And there’s one quote I didn’t want to lose as it deals with change:

The women, low on the logs, had started up “long Ago, Sweet Long Ago,” and the men’s deep voices met their earnest sopranos boldly; they all love this song.  They sang in the dark, and looked at the fire.  They had seen younger faces, around other fires; they had sung beneath other skies, in other times, far away.  The tide was starting out, and the wet mud reflected the fire darkly, in only the yellows.

Each man and woman had seen the old ways lost in half a life time, and knew there never was a generation so pushed, spun, and accelerated by change as their own, and so nostalgic for a more innocent past, however fanciful.  It was their childhoods they mourned for, and the vanished times and places and people (pp. 357-358).

I was struck by the notion that these people, living in the late 19th century felt as we do today: spun out of control by the force of change around them.  In their lifetimes, they saw massive expansion of travel, from the wagons they drove across the frontier to get to Washington to the railroads, whose choices of towns for depots could make or break a community.  And, with that travel, came more accelerated communication.  Certainly nothing like what we have today, I know, but for them, taking several weeks off the delivery of a letter or being able to send a telegram must have seemed like quite a feat.

Yet, these people are mourning more than technologies, but the culture that developed around such technologies.  Wagon trains built community; railroads encouraged individualism.  “A more innocent past, however fanciful” captures that notion of looking back on something that never really existed, a memory that sustains you.

Killing Time With a Latte

I’m waiting for my husband so we can start the taxes.  Fixed myself a latte.  I love the ritual of it and the fact that it doesn’t cost $3.65 for a few espresso beans and some low fat milk.  And it comes in a reusable container.

I have come to love to cook. Years of watching Food TV, which was the only lifestyle type cable channel we got for awhile, has hones me into a cook. I understand some basic techniques and can substitute and modify to meet my needs. For instance, I have made this baked pasta casserole three times now and each time it has been different depending on the ingredients at hand. The commonality has been spinach, which is pouring out of my husband’s green house right now. But, once I added ground chicken to make a one-pot non-vegetarian meal, and this time I dropped the meat and added crimini mushrooms from our recent trip to Trader Joe’s and snow peas from the green house. I used a mixture of monterey jack and romano cheese and added some garlic and oregano. I’ve never used the same pasta or the even baked it. I just do it on the stove top the way she suggests in the comments. My husband loves it, and I think it will be a summer staple. It would be nice to have fresh mozarella on it.  Learning to make it and finding the ingredients is on my to do list.

Speaking of mushrooms, I’m supposed to be researching how to grow them. I think I know in theory: you buy a kit. Found a good article from Mother Earth News and am already thinking about putting some in the garden to naturalize. I love the philosophy of the article: one reason to grow things in your own garden is to get something really fresh and not pay outrageous prices. We could certainly do shitake mushrooms out at the property.  The article led me to Mushroom Adventures and they have kits. I think I’m going to get the half portobello, half button kit to get started.

Well, he’s ready so I’m going to click publish!  Here we come, TurboTax!

Morning Muse

My husband is heading out to do some volunteer work for a local agency that builds and repairs houses. So, we’re up early. It’s not even 8 AM and the dogs have been walked, chickens have been fed, and there’s a fresh pot of coffee brewing. I have a few things on my list of to dos but nothing pressing and a full week at home next week. So, it’s the weekend and the question is what do I WANT to do?

  • Play some music: I’m playing in a recorder trio so I have music to practice. Plus, I have other solo stuff. There’s always the piano as well.
  • Read some: I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and picked up Annie Dillard’s The Living last night. Got through a few pages before it was time to go to sleep so would love to continue with that today. It’s set in northern Washington, and I’m reliving our visit to that still somewhat wild country.
  • Crochet: I’m currently making octagonal granny squares with some leftover red cotton yarn. Inspired by all the great craft sites out there, I took a picture of my two tea cozies (see below). The blue one is for a friend and includes a pad for the bottom. My next crochet project is to try making socks. I got a great book at the Michael’s near my hotel and have some variegated brown cotton yarn. The Sound of Music is on tonight, and I am looking forward to settling in and crocheting.
  • Work on my England map. My parents and I are going to England in October. They love to travel and are already in the midst of planning. After they called last night, I created a new Google map and started marking some of the places I want to visit including Stonehenge, Glastonbury, and Bath. The lake country is pretty far north, but nothing in England is very far away so we may be able to do it. I also want to go to Wales.

crocheted tea cozies

I was a good weight watcher yesterday and even saved up enough points for a glass of wine. I made this pasta from 101 Cookbooks using fresh spinach from the greenhouse. I also added ground chicken and did not bake it. Paired with big salads, this was a healthy, yummy dinner. And there are plenty of leftovers for lunch. I think tonight are baked tilapia fillets and Easter dinner will be pork loin and pineapple stuffing.

Good Friday

Yes, it refers to the holiday but it also refers to the fact that after four days away from home, I’m back at my desk watching the birds and the squirrels as I decide what I need to do today.

I finished my crocheted tea cozy and small mat for a friend’s birthday.  I looked for a teapot for her but couldn’t find one I liked so may just get a box of tea to send along with the cozy.  I also spent time last night surfing crochet and craft sites.

I am hoping that crocheting in the evening will help me fight the battle of the bulge.  Last night, I really wanted to snack on something even though I knew I didn’t have any points left and I wasn’t really hungry.  I just wanted to crunch pretzels or crackers. But I crocheted and then cam back and worked on the computer.  I’ve been eating so well the past week that I don’t want to blow it now that I’m home.  I’ve already eaten cereal this morning and am getting ready to open my WW points tracker and plan the rest of the day.

The workshops went well.  I only have a few things on my to do list, especially since I have the whole weekend ahead as well.  I’m enjoying the free time since once I get started on my dissertation research, there won’t be much of that left.  Oh!  The best news…I’m going to get to teach my first online course starting next week.  Very exciting!

I did skip Maundy Thursday last night.  Wasn’t sure I would get home in time and my church was having a supper that required rsvp.  So, I stayed home, cooked scrambled eggs and roasted potatoes for us, then Bob went to a meeting.  I think tonight will be whole wheat spaghetti.  I told Bob I would make pineapple stuffing for Easter along with a slice of ham.

Life Changes

I have the soul of a 25 year old but the body of a 45 year old and sometimes that contrast really bugs me.  Now, at the time of my life when I know what I want to do and have lots of opportunities to do it, I just don’t have the same energy level.  Actually, at 25, I was working full time (but for someone else) and going to school, too.  But I remember having excess energy.  I was a runner; I hung out until all hours with friends and did those other things, too.  On the other hand, I am much more comfortable in my own skin these days.  Recently, I’ve said to a couple people that the good thing about this age is that I really just don’t give a damn what people think about me any more.

I have been “doing” weight watchers pretty religiously for at least two days now.  I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but for me, it’s a good start.  Today is the tough day.  I don’t feel all that well, and I could easily backslide.  So, after I’m done writing, I’m going to plan today’s meals.  It worked yesterday.  I ate raisin bran and milk for lunch.  And, even had enough extra points to enjoy a grande nonfat latte.  I cut off a small piece of my steak to eat and filled my plate with the Mayo Clinic potatoes I made and green beans. (When I went back to the recipe, I realize I didn’t soak the potatoes in cold water first.  They were still good. Also, I used Murchee’s Focaccia Bread Spice that we bought last summer in Victoria, BC.)

Just fired up the Writer’s Almanac podcast.  I have a couple skype sessions this morning and then wouldn’t mind doing some more gardening.  Yesterday, I moved some day lilies and bearded irises around.  Still have some more although I’m not completely sure where they are going.  Oh…I have some ideas.  It’s going to be a beautiful day so maybe we’ll run out to the property in the evening.  At some point, I do need to go grocery shopping.  Hmm…big day planned.  At least, the gardening yesterday yielded me 5 exercise points with WW.

I fed the birds yesterday morning, even made peanut butter suet.  Now, there’s a downy woodpecker on the suet feeder.  The blue birds have been visiting, too, getting bluer and bluer as each day goes by.  I love watching the world come alive in the spring and my office window offers the perfect viewing spot.

We’re having dinner guests Saturday and I still don’t have a finished menu.  Salad, definitely, from the green house.  It’s close to St. Patrick’s Day so I was thinking about stew although I would use beef rather than lamb.  And soda bread to soak up the stew juices.  The stew will have all the vegies in it.  I guess I could make noodles to put it over, too.  For appetizers, I think a good Irish cheddar if I can find one at the store along with crackers and fruit. Maybe some bruschetta as I have some toast points, too.  I want to do stew because I can make it in the crockpot so there’s not a lot of last minute cooking.  Finally, for dessert, I found an apple-custard pie recipe that is supposedly Irish.

National Crochet Month

Took another quick cleaning break…I just need to organize the pile beside my chair in the living room.  I was using a Christmas tree basket but I think it’s time to move into spring so I found some stackable boxes with teapots.  Maybe I can use them as holding bins.  I’m sure there’s some organizational guru out there who could tell me exactly how to handle this but I like figuring out a system on my own.

I went looking for a crochet pattern for chair pads.  I have wooden country looking kitchen chairs that I refinished some time ago.  I painted the legs and left the tops natural wood.  They could use another coat of paint and I had chair pads but seem to have lost one of the set of four.  It occurred to me that crocheting pads would be pretty easy.  I’m working on a tea cozy right now.  I’m making it in a neutral cotton just to see how it works out and then I’m going to make one  for a friend.  I discovered that March is National Crochet Month.

I have been crocheting up a storm for myself and mostly for charity.  So, now I’ll crochet happy knowing that I’m joining lots of other people.  I find crocheting to be the perfect relaxing pass time.  I tune into FoodTV or something on PBS and just let the pattern unfold.  So, Have a Happy National Crochet Month!

I was in the midst of writing when I got the call from our weekend visitors.  Stuck on 95 so we’ll meet tomorrow morning.  I’m going grocery shopping then.  But first a visit to the store website to enter my grocery list.  Then it organizes everything by aisle.  What a great use of the web!