Friday, April 22, 2011

Married to the Trail

Last weekend, I caught up with my high school friend Mary, who I hadn't seen in who knows how many years. These days, she's living an outdoorsy life to the fullest out on the West Coast. After hiking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail in past years, she's now getting ready to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail this summer, from May through October*, alone.

The CDT is no joke. It is 3,100 miles of primitive and challenging backcountry trail from Canada to Mexico along the backbone of America. Only 70% of the trail is complete, and it presents the most remote and challenging terrain, fewest signposts, and fewest hikers of the three sister trails. This is truly an epic feat I could never imagine doing (I'm too scared of bears and wild animals), but to Mary, waking and walking in the woods every day is her life's passion. This girl is hardcore. She leads white water rafting trips in the summer and lived in a yurt for six months.

She's started a blog to record her travels, called Married to the Trail. Since she will be out of communication on the trail, she will keep a written journal, and when she gets to town now and then, she'll mail journal pages back to her boyfriend, who will transcribe her words to update the blog. Old technology meets new technology at its finest.

Mary will also have a GPS device to broadcast her location each day on a map on the blog so we can follow her journey. And the GPS has a 911 button, just in case. I know I feel a lot better knowing about that!

* In October, another of my good high school friends will mark a major milestone...a new baby! First baby in my crew.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pizza Potluck!

I've decided to start hosting semi-regular potlucks. The inaugural one was a pizza potluck last weekend. The premise was that I provided dough, sauce, parmesan, and dried herbs and spices, and everyone else was encouraged to bring toppings and beverages. Check out the incredible spread, which included: goat cheese, shredded mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, my homemade ricotta, parmesan, garlic, onion, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, arugula, sausage, pepperoni, and sprouts. As well as lots of wine (see sleeping away weekend afternoons.)

I prepared the dough a couple days earlier, Heidi's pizza dough from 101 Cookbooks. This is my favorite pizza recipe for parties because it's easy to make in advance with a food processor and then slip the dough into individual oiled plastic bags in the fridge until you need them. I made three batches - 18 dough balls! For the most part, any topping preparation (chopping vegetables, grating cheese, cooking sausage) was done ahead of time to simplify the actual pizza creation process.

Each guest took a turn assembling a pizza with their desired toppings, and then everyone got to share little bites of their pizzas if they wanted. In total, the oven was on at a blistering heat for hours and we made 15 pizzas for 12 people, most of them pictured below. There were veggie pizzas, meat lover pizzas, goat cheese pizzas for the lactose intolerant, a carbonara pizza with egg on top, and a simple Neapolitan style pizza with just raw tomato sauce and mozzarella slices baked in a cast iron pan under the broiler and then on the stovetop for a nice char. Vote on your favorite in the comments!

I highly recommend a pizza party as a potluck theme. Everyone was really excited to get to make their own pizza and had a fun time. On the logistical side, it took some planning, but I was able to maximize my minimal kitchen surface area to make it possible to have a few pies going at a time. I also don't have a dining table - so for anyone who thinks their home is too small to host parties, I say that is just an excuse, and there is always a way around it. Given my love of pizza though, perhaps I should think about getting a pizza cutter... Also much love to my friends who helped me do dishes and clean up at the end of the night.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Making Cheese

Following butter, next in the homemade dairy adventures was cheese! As I've mentioned, I get raw milk from the Bushwick Food Coop. I find that the raw milk goes sour tasting faster than I can drink it. I was ready to throw it out, until a fellow coop member filled me in on the fact that soured raw milk is still edible and can be saved for other uses. Apparently, raw milk has beneficial bacteria and enzymes that make it more easily digestible and kill pathogens, so it continues to be safe and nutritious after it starts to taste sour. In contrast, pasteurized milk extends the initial shelf life and eliminates disease risk, but becomes putrified and unsafe after it goes sour. I don't fully understand it, but you can find more information on this here and here and here.

I looked up uses for sour milk - I don't like yogurt so that was out. I wanted to make cheese, but nothing complicated involving rennet. Then I remembered Rachel's simple paneer from Heart of Light. Sold. Then poking through some old magazines I stumbled across directions for making ricotta in an old Diner Journal (offbeat food publication made by the folks behind Diner restaurant in Brooklyn). The directions for both are quite similar, one calling for lime juice and the other for vinegar. After making it, the texture reminded me of the goat cheese my mom made when I was young, and sure enough, she said she used the same process but calls it "farmers cheese." So whatever you want to call it, it was a snap to make.

Heat whole milk until nearly boiling, add an acid such as vinegar (which is what I used) or lime juice, and then let the curds (solids) separate and rise to the top from the whey (liquid). My instructions told me the whey would turn clear, which it never did. I also found curds hanging at the bottom of my pan in addition to the top, so maybe I didn't cook it long or hot enough for them to separate sufficiently. Not sure. Regardless, I spooned out the curds with a mini colander (or slotted spoon would work) and then laid them in a rag (any thin dishcloth or cut up sheet or cloth napkin etc would work here if you don't have actual cheesecloth) over a larger colander and let drain for a half hour. Then twisted the rag around the curds to strain out more liquid and let it drain another half hour before putting in the refrigerator to firm. I added the olive oil and rosemary later, mashing it up into small pieces which is the texture you see below. My cheese was still good in the fridge a week after making it.

Coming from soured milk, it had a little sour tang, and then I thought it still needed a litle something extra, so I mixed in rosemary and marinated it in olive oil. It tasted great on pizza and melted well. I think I will make cheese again next time I have sour milk, although I will play around with a different final preparation.

Farmers Market Haul: 3/19/11

Speaking of farmers markets, they have been showing signs of life. From the McCarren Park Greenmarket a couple weekends ago: spinach (among the first greens of the season), shallots, rutabaga, potatoes, carrots, butter to have on hand when mine runs out, eggs, Consider Bardwell Farm's "fancy cheese" as a friend of mine calls it - I think their Rupert is my favorite, a baby leek for the biscuits, and tulips! And this was also the first time I've seen an Edible publication for Queens. I'm not sure if Saturday farmers markets are going to be a regular thing for me as in the past. I often find myself sleeping off my Friday night well into my Saturday afternoon unfortunately...

Rosemary Leek Buttermilk Biscuits

What did I end up making with the butter and buttermilk? Again I copied Kelly of Eat Make Read and made biscuits! With dried rosemary and a chopped up baby leek from the farmers market.

This was the first time I've tried making biscuits and they didn't rise very much. I'm not sure if the consistency of the batter was too wet. Or it could have been that I used white whole wheat flour. Or that I cut the dough into rounds too small. Despite not being fluffy, they still had a great buttery flaky taste.

I brought the biscuits, as well as extra butter for topping, to a friend's potluck and meant to take pictures but was having so much fun that I forgot! I will also add that the homemade butter has lasted a few weeks now and has not gone bad as I had read it might.