Thursday, July 19, 2012

The simple joy of ranch dip/dressing/schmeer

As my regular readers already know, in the last ten years, my diet has completely changed. First I found out that I needed to avoid MSG, and then I found out all of the aliases that hide MSG on ingredient lists. The more that I read labels, the more that I began to question just exactly what it was that I was eating, and why it sounded more like science, and less like food. I eventually turned my back on almost all packaged/pre-prepared food-like substances.

The more that my diet changed, the more that our lifestyle had to change to accommodate that diet. I grew up eating canned foods, boxed/powdered mac & cheese, frozen pot pies, etc. It seemed 'normal' to open a packet that contained the flavor for whatever I was making, instead of opening the spice drawers to blend my own, so the transition has not always been smooth. It is bizarre how much I miss some things, and how happy I am when I figure out a real recipe for those flavors that were so convenient.

Salad dressing used to be so easy, it was nothing to have several bottles on hand, lots of variety. One of my favorites was the ranch that came in a paper packet and mixed with mayo, but with an ingredients list like:

Salt, monosodium glutamate, dried garlic, modified food starch, dried onion, maltodextrin, spices, less than 2% of guar gum, calcium stearate, natural flavor (soy)
-(emphasis mine- items in red represent definite, as well as possible, sources of MSG)

the packets were a no-no, and the ingredients only got worse on the bottles. To look at that list it seems simple enough, and I tried different recipes that I found online, but none of them seemed right for me. After a while, I gave up and resigned myself to vinaigrettes and an occasional guacamole or bean dip.

Recently we were invited to the lake for the day, so hubby and I put our heads together for the planning required for a social event. Naturally, I always try to bring something to share, and then I needed to figure out what we could eat that wouldn't stand out too much or require much preparation at the party. The menu that everyone else would be eating was burgers and dogs, snacks & desserts, etc, so we decided on BLT's. I baked rye bread, cooked bacon, washed the lettuce and tomatoes, and made a goat cheese & herb schmeer to use in place of mayo. I baked cookies to bring, and we bought a few bags of organic corn chips (one of the few concessions that we allow ourselves on occasion), and I decided to try to make a dip. I took some chevre (goat cheese), cultured buttermilk, and chives from our co-op, added a few things and took a taste. . . .and stopped cold. I turned to my husband and let him taste, his eyes lit up and he asked if I had written down the recipe (a sure sign of success in our house). I had not, but a day or two later I recreated the results, and I am sharing them with you.

As always, feel free to tweak, but for us this recipe is a lock. If you don't have chevre, you could substitute cream cheese.

·         1 cup cultured buttermilk
·         2 generous Tbsp chopped fresh chives
·         ¼ tsp garlic powder
·         ¾ tsp onion powder
·         ½ tsp thyme
·         ½ tsp basil
·         app ½ tsp salt (adjust to taste)
·         enough chevre to adjust consistency (more for dip, less for dressing/add by Tbsp amounts)

Mix together all ingredients. This can be used immediately, however, if made the night before and allowed to rest in the refrigerator, the flavors deepen and fully develop.

By simply using more chevre as the base, and adding buttermilk by the Tbsp, you can make a wonderful sandwich spread (or as I like to call it, schmeer) using this same recipe.

Showing this day 2011: Oatmeal Raisin Chai Spice Cookies

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Golden Chai

I am far overdue to write a new post. As I explained in April, I am in the middle of a personal rehab/remodel of my back. When last I posted, I was seeing the chiropractor three times a week, gradually increasing the time between adjustments. This week, I 'graduated' to once every four weeks for maintenance.

While my adjustments got fewer and further between, my workouts increased to close to two hours per day, as I am using exercise for my primary pain management, along with my recipe for a chai tea that I based on an ayurvedic recipe for golden milk (turmeric paste in milk- see below). I have found that the tea provides some basic relief, and hubby and I use it as our anti-inflammatory.

***Disclaimer: Nothing that I post should be construed as medical advice; I am not a doctor, and I do not play one on PC. This blog is primarily about my journey in the kitchen, with detours into personal opinion and stories of what's going on in my world (after all, what is a 'blog', but a web log or diary?). Personally, I try to avoid big pharmaceuticals, and I do believe in the medicinal value of herbs and spices. That said, even all-natural herbs CAN have side-effects, and I encourage my readers to research and question everything, whether information comes from your doctor,  your friendly-neighborhood internet blogger, social media or TV. Very rarely does one individual hold all the answers, and even those answers may not be correct for everyone.***

Now that we got that out of the way, I have to say that I have been looking for ways to incorporate turmeric into my diet, and this works nicely, especially in the evening. As always, feel free to modify the recipe; use more milk or less, use a different fat, sweeten (or don't) as you see fit. Also, either keep a spoon handy to stir the spices, chug them at the end, or sip the tea until you get to the paste and discard; we usually swirl a bit of water in any remaining spices and finish them that way. This makes two large mugs (or buckets as we like to call them, LOL), or three cups.

One of our 'buckets' of Golden Chai tea,
with the many spices used in the recipe.

·         8 oz tea (fairly neutral in taste, black, white or oolong would work nicely, I even use Earl Grey)
·         8 oz milk (I recommend the highest quality that you can find, whether that is organic, grass-fed dairy, etc.)
·         8 oz water (you can substitute more milk for a richer cup)
·         ½ tsp turmeric
·         ½ tsp allspice
·         ½ tsp cinnamon
·         ½ tsp ginger
·         ¼ tsp coriander seed powder
·         1/8 tsp clove
·         1/8 tsp nutmeg
·         1/8 tsp cardamom
·         1/8 tsp mace
·         app. 1 (generous) Tbsp of fat (I use butter, but you can substitute any high quality organic oil)

Add the liquids and spices to a pot and place over medium heat. Stir frequently (keep in mind that any wooden spoon or silicone spatula that you use will probably be stained yellow by the turmeric). Cook until the golden yellow of the turmeric becomes more pronounced, add fat and sweeten as desired.

*It should be noted that turmeric is known to have a bitter taste, so if you increase the amount, you may want to do so gradually. Please read up on side effects, and if you are on medication, you may want to check with your pharmacist for possible drug interactions. Just as in the case of reactions to food, be aware or your body's reaction to any herbal supplements that you may try.


Showing on this day in 2011: Blueberry & Yellow Squash Bread

Monday, April 2, 2012

Please stand by...

When I was a kid, and we were living in Germany, I can remember the TV would sometimes show a cartoon drawing of an ostrich with his head in the sand and the words,'Please stand by, we are experiencing technical difficulties', or something to that effect. Well, along those same lines, a friend has reminded me that I have some ‘splaining to do regarding my activity (or rather, lack thereof) on the blog. I wrote in February about being sleep deprived, but I still haven’t returned to my normal pace of approximately a post a week, and she said that my readers must be wondering about me. I was hesitant, since everyone has their own problems without reading about mine, but I don’t want you to think I have lost interest in the blog and won’t be returning, so here goes.

As my readers know, I have to cook everything from scratch (because of food allergies), and I try to regularly create new recipes. Aside from my food issues, I have always had trouble with my back, and in recent months kneading, rolling, chopping, etc. leaves me in tears, and even sitting for any length of time to type on the computer puts me in agony (no gaming for me these days- good thing GW2 still has some time until release). We kept procrastinating on going to the chiropractor, in part to figure out the flaming insurance hoops we would need to jump through, partly worried about out-of-pocket costs, and partly just stupidly thinking I was just being a wimp and I could somehow work out the problem on my own. This approach, by the way, should be filed under ‘Don’t Do this ever.’. Just sayin’.

Anyway, I finally made my first appointment, and let me just say that there is something profoundly unsettling about hearing the doctor repeatedly ‘hmmm’ as he does his initial check-up on your back. I finally asked, ‘okay, what DOES ‘hmmm’ mean?’, and he responded with, ‘We have our work cut out for us’. He then asked me to follow him to get x-rays, and he took a series of radioactive ‘mug’ shots (including one lovely where I had to stand with my mouth wide open so that he could get the top of my spine from the front without the obstruction of my jaws/teeth). He developed the frames and said he would sit down with us at my next appointment to explain his treatment plan.

A couple days later, said appointment arrived, and I be-bopped in thinking ‘how bad could it be?’ (when will I learn not to ask that question?). Well, I can’t/wouldn’t (even if I could) share my x-rays, but I think it is safe to call me a mess. My cervical curvature was almost non-existent (in fact I had almost begun to curve the opposite direction), I was stretching my spinal cord and brain stem (not a stretch one should do, by the by), my lumbar curvature was also somewhat straightened, discs were being compressed and some calcification was starting on the vertebrae, I have 12° of scoliosis (10° is the minimum, so this is mild) in my upper back, and my right hip is appreciably higher and turned. I think that is all that he said. Truth be told I was sort of in shock, but in a weird way I was also relieved. I wasn’t just being a wimp, and this doctor had answers. I haven’t always fared so well with the medical profession, so maybe I was just glad to not have a doctor shrug and say, ‘beats me. Want an antidepressant?’.  Right now I am seeing the chiropractor a lot (three times a week), trying to rest to let my back heal, and am slowly working up to exercising to recover.

What this all boils down to is that while I am still cooking and experimenting, I am often too tired to photograph the food before we eat (especially since that means I have to derubble the kitchen enough to be able to take a photo that showcases the food- how do I manage to make such a total mess out of a clean kitchen?), and I have trouble sitting down to write about what I am doing. I am keeping notes on my new recipes and I hope to soon return to a more regular schedule, when I will share some new rice puddings, cookies, sausages, etc. and information about food and kitchen tools worthy of note. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by, and feel free to look around at the recipes and journal entries on file.

Heidi a/k/a Thistle & Dragonfly in the kitchen

Showing on this day in 2011: Review: My first impression- Virgin Coconut Oil

Friday, March 9, 2012

Finding the right tools for the job

As time goes on, and my goals in the kitchen become more complicated, I find myself looking for better tools to help with the process. The right tools for the job definitely make any task more approachable. Recently, thanks to gift cards and after-Christmas clearance sales, we were able to add a few lovelies to my kitchen arsenal, and I thought I would take a few posts to share with you the things that I love, that help me bring dinner to the table. To clarify, I am sharing my thoughts, and I have not received any incentive to write these opinions.

Some tools can be lumped together with others, but there are a few that deserve to be in the spotlight, like pots and pans, for example. The proper vessel can make or break your cooking experience, whether you are frying eggs or making candy, roasting meat or cooking a custard. I am still building my collection, but I think I am off to a great start.

After having a set of stainless steel pans that failed* and left me with no pots and pans to cook in, I was totally lost. I have to cook everything from scratch, so I had to figure out what was needed and fast. I was scared of buying stainless steel pans, since I couldn’t afford anything that didn’t have those copper sandwich discs attached to the bottom, and that was the fail point on the old set. After much research, we settled on enameled cast iron, but then I needed to pick a good brand. Reviews led me to two names: Le Creuset and Staub, and Le Creuset had a nearby outlet. We headed over there and walked away with:

One combination pot with a small egg pan for a lid and one large skillet.

I needed one large skillet for frying tortilla

We were on such a limited budget that this pot was an awesome find. The lid doubles as a pan that I have used almost exclusively for eggs.

 A few months later I found a small pot on clearance, this is intended for use on the grill.

I often found myself making a meal, only to realize that I needed three of the small pot or two of the medium pot, so I would cook one dish, put it in an oven-safe dish and keep it warm, wash the pot and make the next dish. As they say on the shampoo bottles, lather, rinse, repeat, as needed.

Under strong advice, I purchased this oval Dutch oven, and I have used it on the stove-top to cook soup and beans, and in the oven to cook a roast.

We started studying the after-Christmas sales, and in January of 2012, Hubby gave me two pieces of Staub enameled cast iron, and then we happened on a clearance sale and got one more. Without the sales (and gift cards), no way could I have bought these lovelies, but, oh my. I unwrapped the first pot and all I could do was stare in awe.

Beautiful blue.
Lovely green with bonus mini cocottes

At last a second small pot, tall and deep.
 These are so beautiful that I couldn’t believe that I was going to be able to use these every day in MY kitchen. I loved the Le Creuset and I still use it, but I have to say that in my collection the Staub are my favorites and, in my opinion, their design is better.
  • Staub has a black enamel interior and the lids fit tightly and have basting spikes that allow the condensation to drip onto the food. 
  • In my experience the light interior of the Le Creuset stains easily and the lids don't fit quite as well, although they are advertising a new improved interior that better resists stains and tighter fitting lids.  
  •  Staub has a truly beautiful exterior enamel that has a depth resulting from layers of different color. I happened to get lucky when I purchased the Staub pieces, the colors that I wanted were on sale at the stores that I shop regularly.
  • To be fair I should note that the Le Creuset comes in many beautiful colors, but each time that I was in a position to buy a piece, the black was less expensive, and price almost always outweighs color preference; I wont buy a color that I truly dislike, but I also wont pay a lot extra just to get a color that I like better.
I’m hoping to get more pieces of Staub in the future, including their saute and frying pans, a pancake pan, a teapot, maybe even some of their specialty pans, like their gorgeous pumpkin cocotte and rectangular terrine. Then again, I wont be too picky, if I find more great deals on great pots and pans, I will try to find a way to bring them home. ;) With both brands, these pots and pans are heavy. I often joke that they are my part of my kitchen workout, but I have no doubt that they will give me many years of faithful service.

*The set that I had to stop using  had that attached copper sandwich-disc that is so popular these days, but these delaminated with not-so-lovely popping sounds. After looking them up online, I found that this set of popular-chef-branded pots and pans had done worse than come apart for many people. I had gotten off lucky, except that the company ignored my warranty request, and I could find no recall information. After that experience, I find myself shying away from any product with a chef’s name on it.

Showing in this day in 2011: Banana Mango Whoopie with Coconut Cream Cheese Filling

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Shiny Zombies, Vampires, and Rye bread

A zombie ate my blog. Well, not my blog,  since everyone knows that zombies eat brains, but a brain is somewhat needed for the word-putting-into-sentence thing, so you can see where there might be a problem. I’ve managed to stay involved in the kitchen, but when I came to the keyboard to tell you about what I was doing I either got nothing, nada, zippo, or half-statements and occasional paragraphs. My brain was a static snowstorm, and it was entirely too easy to distract me.

How did I get this way? Basically for the month of January everything has worked to keep me up at night. I’ve been keeping thoroughly vampire-ish hours (zombies and vampires. . . . look who’s finally trendy, haha). Naturally we were up for New Year’s Eve. Every year some of Hubby’s awesome friends open their home and welcome their circle of friends to ring in the New Year in style. Spending that transitional holiday with them has become such a tradition, and I have to say I appreciate it more every year. But I digress.  See? . . I’m so shiny- in this case,  raccoon “ooh, look, something shiny”, not “Firefly” Serenity (2002) shiny (which roughly translates to pretty, good, etc.). By the way, I just ended up looking up movie quotes. Shiny. Anyway, from January 1st forward, in spite of keeping odd hours, I do have some good things to show for my time in shiny-town.

The real experiment that brought me back from the (brain)dead, was this homemade artisanal Rye bread.

This recipe is based on posts on two other blogs:

Those recipe are both based on “The Bread Bible" (of which I am not fortunate enough to possess a copy), but I enjoyed both posts, so I wanted to give them props. Naturally, I did a bit of tweaking, especially to accommodate my sensitivities and personal taste, but without the recipe that they cited, their photos and insights, I would have been at a loss. The process is much more involved than any bread that I have baked to date, but the results make it worthwhile to answer to a timer and tend to the dough throughout the course of eight or more hours.

-I used active dry instead of instant yeast, because that is what I had on hand. Normally I proof the active dry yeast, but since this was an all day process I didn’t worry about that step. I did not add additional yeast, as I could allow more time for rising which is known to produce a more flavorful result.

-I am giving instructions for making this by hand, as that is my method, but you can refer to the original recipes for instructions on using a stand mixer.

-I used organic all-purpose flour since I don't use bread flour because it is more difficult to find organic specialty flours in my area, organic all-purpose is readily available, and because of a higher possibility of malted barley added to the flour (malted barley is listed as a possible source of MSG). I found that the all-purpose flour worked great for me, but the recipes actually listed bread flour.
Rye bread, alongside a dish of egg salad. You can see the slice that
Hubby & I just HAD to bite into after buttering a few bites of bread.
·         ¾ cup flour
·         ¾ cup rye flour
·         ½ tsp active dry yeast
·         1 Tbsp sugar
·         1 Tbsp organic molasses
·         1½ cups water at room temperature

·         2 cups flour
·         ¼ cup rye flour
·         ½ + 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
·         2 Tbsp of caraway seeds (optional: I ground these in a mortar and pestle, and even processed in a food processor for a few minutes. The result was still mostly seeds, but with some powder and less crunch.)
·         ½ Tbsp coarse salt

Additional Ingredients
·         ½ Tbsp oil (I used melted butter; add when you mix the dough, and coated the dough with olive oil when it was rising)
·         2 tsp blue cornmeal (for the baking sheet)

Combine the ingredients for the sponge in a large bowl. Whisk well until smooth (intentionally incorporate air). Set the sponge aside while you prepare the ingredients for the dough.
Whisk together the dry ingredients for the dough, and gently spoon it on top on the sponge (cover the sponge completely). Here the instructions say to cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, but since I don’t use plastic wrap, I placed a glass lid on the bowl (I have also read of people using a damp towel- after all they had to use something before the advent of cling wrap, right?).
Set aside to allow the sponge to ferment for 1-4 hours (the sponge will bubble through the dry ingredients in places). Since they didn’t really indicate how to choose between 1-4 hours, I checked periodically for signs of activity and used the full 4 hours. One commenter on Smitten Kitchen’s blog suggested that the original (from “The Bread Bible”) recipe instructs the baker to ferment for one hour at room temperature and then refrigerate overnight. I intend to try that approach next time. Note: I did try the refrigerator method, and I liked the results; it does take a while for the sponge to wake up as it comes to room temperature.

Add the oil (or melted butter) and, with a wooden spoon stir until the dry ingredients are moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl until the ingredients come together, then scrape the dough onto a lightly floured counter-top. Knead the dough for 5 minutes (it may be sticky). Cover with the inverted bowl and let it rest for 20 minutes. Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Note: Once you have kneaded dough by hand a few times, you come to understand the change that happens in dough, and that statement ‘smooth and elastic’ will become clear. If this is new to you, all I can tell you is to pay attention to how the texture of the dough changes. You are looking for signs that the ingredients have truly combined and the bonds are becoming more elastic; this is what gives dough the structure to rise.

1st Rise:
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn the dough to coat it completely in oil. Cover and allow the dough to rise until doubled, app. 1½-2 hours. Flip the bowl over and allow the dough to fall onto a lightly floured counter.

2nd Rise:
Press the dough gently and fold or form it into a square-ish ball, return the dough the bowl (oil it again) and cover it, allow it to rise for 45 minutes.

Final Rise: Shape the dough into a ball, and place on a cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet. (I chose to use my Haeger stoneware jelly roll pan-I need to get a baking sheet from them, but this worked out fine.) Again the instructions call for plastic wrap, but I turned the bowl over and used it instead. Let rise to almost doubled, app 1 hour-1 hour 15 minutes (to test the dough, it is ready when you gently press with your fingertip, and the depression slowly disappears). When I set the dough aside to rise, at this point I preheated my oven to 450°F (app 230°C*). You want the oven thoroughly heated and ready for the baking bread.

Slash and Bake:
With a sharpened knife, make ¼-inch deep slashes in the top of the loaf. I didn’t have a mister, so I tossed a few  tablespoons of water into the oven and didn’t mist the dough. Place the baking sheet (with the dough on it)  in the oven.
Note: I did end up covering the dough with parchment partway through the baking time to keep it from getting too brown.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 400°F (app. 205°C*) for 30-40 minute, or until the bread is brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. I took Smitten Kitchen’s suggestion and used a thermometer inserted into the center from the side of the loaf (look for 190°F or app. 87.7°C*). (*update: over time I have learned to check the bread at 10 mins, as it is sometimes already close to temperature- I take it out a few degrees shy of 190°F, if possible, and let if finish 'baking' on the stone on top of the stove.)

*I use an online conversion chart and round up or down, as seems appropriate. Please adjust according to your judgement, and send me a message if you find an error. Thank you.

Pink slime revisited

On May 11, 2011 I published my first post about pink slime (the familiar name for ammoniated boneless lean beef trimmings). This particular item has received quite a bit of attention in the press, on Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution”, the movie “Food, Inc.”, and the blogospere in general. As a reminder, pink slime is meat particulates that have been spun in a centrifuge to separate out the fat, treated with ammonium hydroxide (to kill pathogens like E. coli), and frozen in blocks or chips. The end product is then shipped out to be mixed into ground beef for fast food, school lunch meat, and even grocery store sale to consumers.

In an interesting turn of events, some fast food chains have dropped the use of this filler product, and the backlash has begun. One article defends “supplementary beef  protein”, and bemoans discontinuing use of this “perfectly edible, highly functional ammonia-treated beef protein”. Activists are being accused of undermining public health by using the “ick” factor to destroy food innovations intended to protect consumers.

I find it interesting that we as consumers are expected to just close our eyes and open our mouths and say ‘ah’. Obviously the food giants knew that people would not want to eat this product, or they would have clearly labeled products and invited the public in to see what they were up to, and THAT is the point to what activists are saying to consumers. Personally I aspire to eat better than “perfectly edible”, my goal is to eat as much whole and minimally processed food as possible. I have chosen to really look at the reality of food, and the quality of the life of the animals and workers that help bring food to my table.

Is it surprising that the beef industry is angry at the people that have exposed the process to public scrutiny? certainly not. After all, there is little doubt that the trimmings, once considered only useful for dog food, became more profitable when they found a way to render them fit for human consumption. They are angry that some people are walking away, and they are losing money, but they are overlooking the fact that we have the right to know the details so that we can make an informed choice.

I am reminded of that old movie “Soylent Green”, the 1973 movie based in the 2022 New York. Population has exploded, food is limited, and the Soylent Corporation produces green wafers touted to be high energy food from plankton (they also make Soylent Red and Yellow, with the Green being more rare, but I digress). However, in the movie, the plankton has died off, and the company makes Soylent Green from the corpses of dead people (recall Charlton Heston’s famous line, “Soylent Green is PEOPLE, it’s people I tell you!”). Obviously the idea is still an exaggeration, even compared to current concerns, but the basic idea of knowing the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of our food system is a valid approach. When we were children, it was okay to keep certain details from us, but we’re big boys and girls now, and some of us want to know the truth.

The fact that some of the fast food industry has rejected ammoniated filler is one step towards better food, and proves the power of the consumer. When the details came out, when the discussions began, and when the public made their feelings known,  changes resulted. Still, there are many more changes that we need to make in our food system, and every dollar spent is a vote towards the future of food.

Vote wisely, keep well.