Saturday, July 25, 2009

Preservation Hall

Since we are broke I've been trying to save every scrap of vegetable we have. Here in Appalachia that would mean canning, but I have no understanding of canning. I really want to learn but right now I can't afford the equipment let alone the jars. Which is a shame because apparently Union County has a cannery. Damned if I can find it though. It is in a turn of the century (20th), unmarked building near the high school. Great directions huh. If I find it though, it only costs something like a quarter per jar, you do all the prep work. The only thing I know about canning is that in the basement of my Grandpa's old house there were shelves of jarred pickles. And I never remember anyone eating them.

But freezing I can do. I found a good guide on freezing vegetable from UGA. My mother-in-law gave us her old chest freezer (she bought it to prep for our wedding) and I also am "borrowing" her vacuum freezer bag machine. I've been a mean green freezing machine this week.

Out of my garden I have frozen three 8oz bags of green beans and one 5oz bag of snow peas. That looks like it is going to be it sadly. But Dinah has had pounds of produce bestowed on her at work. So far this week I have packed and frozen about five pounds of yellow squash, four cups of okra and probably four pounds of string beans, all of which was just given to us. There is probably another two pounds of string beans yet for me to process. I prefer the bush beans to string beans but I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Yesterday I bought a dozen ears of corn and then Dinah brought home another dozen that was given to her. What we don't eat, I'll freeze. And since cooking corn is the same as blanching it, any leftovers after dinner I just freeze now.

The downside to either freezing or canning is that you still end up with a cooked vegetable. For example, you can save carrots but you have to cook them first. So there is no way to save a fresh carrot that I grew in the garden for January. But cooked is better than none at all.

I do need to figure out the canning thing if anything just for pickles. But first I have to figure out the pickles; that's not going so well so far.

By the way, Preservation Hall is in New Orleans, at least I hope it still is. It is one of those must stop and visits if you are in the Big Easy for the historical significance of it whether you like jazz or not. I loved seeing it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Week Two - Tuesday

Tuesday the plan was to cook lunch for a group called the Hero's Group, whatever that is.

I'm confused that since school is pay to play, why do people not show up every day of class or not arrive on time? Hottie #2 and #3 were in class on Monday but not Mouth. It was reversed on Tuesday. Red was not there on Monday but showed up late on Tuesday. I don't get it.

First order of the day was a video on roasting and then another on fabricating chicken. Kick ass! Cutting up meat was the number one reason I wanted in this class. I am baffled about butchering a chicken. The video was a little confusing with the fancier preparations or fabricating that did not involve cutting out all of the major parts.

After we watched the videos we headed into the kitchen and each grabbed a chicken. First we had to truss the bird as if we were going to roast it whole, have it inspected and then cut the chicken up into eight parts. Trussing was lickity-spit and I got the thumbs up from Chef. I mean how hard is it to wrap a piece of string around the legs and then around the bird. The hardest part is using a long enough piece of string to begin with.

Next I got out my petty knife to start hacking this thing up. I don't have a true boning knife and there was no way I was going to trust the sharpening job on one of the class knives. It is funny to watch these guys sharpen knives. They really love the electric sharpener which is the fastest way to grind down and ruin your knife. Then they rub their thumb over the edge and say "that's a mighty sharp knife, " or something to that effect. Dude, it's a chef's knife not a lawn mower blade. Got to remember where I live I guess.

I digress.

The first step in fabricating the chicken is to cut out the back bone, down one side then the other. I was in awe at how my knife went through the chicken like butter. That thars a sharp knife! Now I want a real boning knife, a Japanese one though, of course.

I laid the chicken flat, skin side down an then sliced along the white membrane around the breast bone like I saw in the video. With some effort I was able to tear the breast bone out but not as easily as they made it seem in the video so I was having some doubts.

I got the wings off easy enough. I could not remember how to separate the breast from the thigh/leg and had to ask Chef. Secret was to cut through with the skin side up where the muscles are obviously distinct. So now I had four pieces, two wings, two breasts. Cutting the leg and thighs apart was easy. Eight pieces. I even trimmed the excess fat off of all my pieces. Then I looked around and saw that I was the only one finished, by more than a little bit. Some people were still trussing. I wasn't sure if I was finished but I had eight pieces. I was stoked.

I got Chef's blessing which tickled me pink because this was the first time I had ever cut up a chicken and I really was unsure of what I was doing. Chef showed me how I should pop the thigh bone through the meat. This technique prevents a blood pocket forming during cooking. Cool!

After all the chickens were cut up we threw them into roasting pans, seasoned and put them in the oven. The green beans and broccoli were pulled out of the walk-in. Ridges worked on bringing back a cheese sauce from the day before. A group of like eight sliced up cake and cheese cake for the lunch. Bar Code and two other guys were portioning some steaks left over from an ACF meeting the night before and would be served at lunch. So once again I decided to hit the dish washer and periodically check to see if anyone needed assistance.

We arranged the tables to make a long serving line. We had a student working each food to serve the ladies coming through the line. I am still amazed that some people don't don't which pieces are white meat and which are dark meat. Whatever you wanted, you got a thigh. I was at the end of the table with Mouth serving the desert. When the ladies would ask what we had for desert, Mouth would roll her eyes and venomously spit out "cake." This girl has an attitude problem. She snapped at me once during clean up. I see conflict down the road.

The food was good. We accidentally over cooked the chicken. But, it was probably the way most people would have wanted it since people have an overt fear of undercooked chicken. The mashed potatoes weren't cooked all the way through before mashing. The steak was very good.

Next week we are fabricating more chicken and making chicken stock. Sweet.

Week Two - Monday

Week two of school oddly paralleled my first culinary class. On Monday we focused on moist cooking methods, boil, steam, poach, etc. One half of the class was given potatoes and the other half vegetables. There was a bit of irony in that my class with the kids handled this better. When I took Professionalism with the kids we paired off in groups of two (I like the redundancy of that wording). In Monday's class we split into two groups of like twelve. The old adage too many cooks in the kitchen came to life. Nobody could make a decision, the people who were experienced tried to dominate the task and it just became a true cluster fuck, to say it nicely.

I was on the vegetable side. We were given frozen green beans and frozen broccoli. It was decided that we needed to blanch the beans. Blanching green beans made no sense to me, as they are already blanched prior to freezing. Essentially we just thawed them. Oh well. The blanching also did not involve boiling water which I felt to be strange, but I went along with it.

Somehow it was decided to put mushrooms, onions, yellow and red peppers in with the green beans. I'm not sure how and it was humorous that this was beyond what Chef envisioned. One of the guys who works at a fancy resort in the area told us to remove the stems from the mushroom caps prior to slicing. Then Chef came over and said put the stems back in. Too funny.

Since it was taking four to six people to "blanch" the frozen green beans in a single pot I decided to go down and help the other end of the table. In my first class Chef stressed that if we finished with what we were doing we were to help others who needed it. This is second nature to me and I'm good at it but was a new concept with the kids. It's a big part of our grade so it is not a concept to be taken lightly. The other end of the table was making Bolognese sauce (meat sauce for pasta) as a special task from Chef. First step was mirepoix and they were busy looking up the recipe for it. I told them it was 2:1:1 onions, carrots celery. MILF corrected me that it was 50% onions, 25% carrots and 25% celery. That's what I said. I grabbed some carrots and started dicing. They were in cone shapes from roll cuts so it took a little extra time.

After that it was still discombobulated in the kitchen so I did what I do best, ran the dish washer.

The Bolognese sauce was for pasta that Chef made for us for lunch. It was pretty good. Chef said the extra effort was my fault since I complained about no meat in the vegetable soup last week, so he was making sure I got meat this week. I laughed and said I didn't think I was so much to blame as much as I was inspiration.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Yogrit Update

Again I'm changing too many variables at once but I feel like I can reasonably figure out the influencing variables.

The latest batch of yogurt I made with the last cup of the previous successful yogurt as the starter. But I also decided to flavor the yogurt before it fermented rather than after it was finished. I added the equivalent amount of Splenda and True Lemon that I would have used for the individual cups.

The result was throwing the entire batch out. Each cup appeared to be only half set, very liquidy. I also noted that the consistency of the solids was like curdled milk. A quick taste confirmed it was curdled milk.

I don't think that the remaining yogurt used as starter was the problem as much as the addition on True Lemon. Even though this is a dry ingredient, I think the True Lemon rehydrated and had enough acidic content to curdle the milk.

Back to the drawing board. I'll get this mastered yet. I bought another cup of the organic plain Greek yogurt that I used successfully last time. Oh, it is Stonyfield Farms not Stoneybrook Farms. Sorry.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Garden Update

I thought I'd give a run down on the garden.

Eggplant - The plant itself is growing great. The first blossom wilted, withered and died. The next two blossoms did very well and you can see little tiny eggplants up inside. But today I noticed one of the little tiny eggplants seems to be molding. There are a couple more blossoms but I don't know if they are producing yet. So I would say the jury is still out on the eggplant.

Spring Onions - These are growing very well. The green parts are HUGE. I pulled one and it tasted great. Now I just have to figure out what to do with the other five. I'm sure it would be best to cook a tasty dish with them but I bet I just eat them straight, with salt, just like I used to do with my Grandma.

Carrots - Same as the spring onions, growing great with HUGE green tops. Rose picked one and it was about six inches long. We ate the carrot and saved the top for a stock. I think there are three or four left to pull.

Cucumbers - I have two different kinds, straight eights and pickling cucumbers. The straight eights are growing wild. I've been fortunate this year to see a lot of honey bees pollinating the flowers on everything, especially the cucumbers. I saw very few honey bees last year. I've picked at least six big cukes so far and there are at least twenty blossoms waiting to become cucumbers right now. The pickling cucumbers are doing well also. I've picked at least 12-18 so far. I've been making pickles with both kinds (more on that later). The one negative with the pickling cucumbers so far is that the plant is not prolific enough to produce a large enough quantity at a time to make pickles. That is why I have been supplementing with the regular cukes. If I can master the pickling process then then next step would be to plant more pickling cucumber plants than I did this year.

Tomatoes - The tomatoes make me want to cry. All the plants have fruit and all of the plants are six foot tall or more. And all of the plants are dying. I'm not sure the tomatoes will ripen fast enough before the plants die off. I was hoping for a bumper crop but I'm going to be lucky to have a few servings. All of the plants are diseased. I was hoping it was just early blight but the leaves are not responding to the anti-fungal sprays I have tried. So now I am thinking that it is fusarium wilt. I have two watermelon plants planted in the same bed and they are looking week too. I've learned that watermelon is susceptible to fusarium wilt which adds to my suspicion on the tomatoes. I don't grow hybrid VFN tomatoes which are fusarium (the F in VFN) wilt resistant. The problem is in the soil. Next year I'll have to plant the tomatoes in a different location. I'm not sure but planting marigolds might "purify" the soil. I need to look into that more.

Peppers - All of the peppers are growing very well this year. I've already picked a dozen or so jalapenos, two Mexi-bell hybrids and two Cubanelle style peppers. As usual the main problem is I have more peppers than I actually cook with. Looks like I'll be freezing more. I still haven't used up the peppers from last year!

Watermelon - As I mentioned above, the watermelon in the same soil as the tomatoes is looking pretty puny. There are melons on the vines though. Little ones. I planted two more watermelon plants in another bed and they are growing like they are on steroids. So far there are 8-10 melons between the two plants, one about as big as a bowling ball. I'm not holding my breath though. I have never successfully grown a melon to ripeness so there is still a lot of potential for these to be a disappointment. But they look good so far.

Snow peas - These have been a huge disappointment. So far I have had one round of picking that yielded about five ounces of peas. I froze them. Last year I picked batch after batch after batch. I don't know if I planted too close together or if the soil isn't right or what. Today I noticed more new flowers but no peas.

Bush beans - These too have been a disappointment. At first things were going great. The plants are thick and tall. There were lots of flowers. I picked two or three go-arounds for about two pounds of beans, most of which I have frozen. And then all of a sudden everything stopped. So I'm not sure what the problem is here.

Corn - Keeping in mind that the corn was a last minute experiment, I think it is doing fairly well. I did not properly work the soil and I planted in mini-peat cups and the bed is in partial shade. I've lost probably half of the sliver queen. Some of the loss is from stunted plants, I'm guessing because of the shade. Some of the loss is from week roots; the plants fell over from watering and never sprang back up. I think this is a result of poorly worked soil. And some of the plants look like they were trampled. I've only seen two deer one time in two years here, so I doubt it was deer. I'm guessing a dog stomped through the patch of corn. I've only lost about 25% of the early bi-color corn, for the same reasons. I think if I get six ears of corn from either type, I'll be happy given the experimental nature of the planting. I noticed today that some of the early corn have baby ears sprouting from the stalks.

Pumpkin - The pumpkin is going gang busters. It is out of control. Based on blossom count alone, there is potential for at least forty pumpkins. The honey bees have been busy over here. The pumpkin is pulling down corn stalks and branching out along the compost fence. I think some of the vines may be twenty feet long. I'm excited about the potential here.

So there we go. Call it a midterm report card. There is still a lot of growing season left so we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

...Now It Cuts Like A Knife, But It Feels So Right...

Day two of class was knife skills. Which is funny because day two of my first quarter was knife skills, but I guess everybody needs a refresher.

Before we could start cutting we had to unpack some new equipment, wash it and put it away. I am finding it smart to often play stupid. Many of the other students believe that since this is their second quarter and they have not seen me before that I'm a newbie. I just don't remember some things or we did things differently. Example, I couldn't figure out how to get the sanitizer to work. Our MILF said that it only takes a drop and Chef concurred. Ok, I didn't remember. Too my credit though the low battery light was on. But when I asked why they weren't using the dish washer and doing everything by hand I was returned with a look of a deer caught in the headlights by Hottie #2. I am a dish washing machine so I jumped in a cranked a few racks through.

One of the items unpacked was a dozen paring knives from Dexter. I grabbed a basket to run them through the dishwasher and MILF stopped me saying knives had to be hand washed. I asked why, knowing that running twelve paring knives through the dishwasher was much safer and that Dexter knives are made to run through dishwashers. Her smart ass reply was if I had read my book last night like I was supposed to, I would know. Ok, I'll bite, I did read the book, but again why? Because dishwashers wil ruin the handles and dull the knives. OK, true enough, but these are Dexters! I'll ask Chef. I came back, said it was OK with these particular knives. I learned long time ago, play dumb, let people feel like they are in control and feelings don't get hurt. I like MILF by the way.

Next we watched some knife skills videos. I am starting to wonder if people with ADD are drawn to be cooks? My class is older and more professional than the kids I was with before but as soon as Chef went to his office, people started talking, goofing off and then fast forwarding the video so we didn't have to watch as much. The NEVER happened when I was in college. I wished they hadn't. There was one really good section on sharpening that got skipped over. These people will struggle with sharp knives for a while.

We set up in a long assembly line which was strange because with the kids we used both sides of the kitchen and had some elbow room. We were supposed to practice all of our cuts, batonette, julienne, brunoise, dice, lozenge, roll cuts, etc. I didn't bother with tourné since I don't have a tourné knife and I didn't bring a short paring knife with me. I bring my own knives. I don't bother with the knife roll if I don't have to since 90% of the time all we need is a cook's knife and a paring knife. For me it is quite simple, I don't trust someone else's sharpening skills. I sharpen my own knives. I know they are sharp. If I cut myself it will be my own fault, not because I trusted someone else's dull knife. Usually I bring my cook's knife, my petty knife and sometimes my santoku knife. Now I wish my cook's knife was about two inches longer, but doesn't everybody.

Mouth was at the end of the table, she's a lefty. And a constant complainer. Several times I heard her say she hates this class. Why are you here then! She has a nice knife though.

The Kid was on my left. This guy is like 4' 8" and drives a big 'ol (1970 something) beat up pick up truck with a huge blower scoop on the hood. He's serious but he massacred an onion. I tried to show him how to cut it correctly rather than just hacking away at it. He was using his paring knife. He was shocked when I said that his knife was dull. It's brand new! Yeah, well, that doesn't mean that the company sent it to you fully sharp. I like The Kid.

On my right were Sushi One and Sushi Two. These guys both work at a steak and sushi place down the road. Young guys but committed. They take copious notes. Deja vu with my last class, Sushi One asked me for help with his cuts. I showed him how his tomato would bend under the knife before cutting, a sure sign of a dull knife. I let him try my knives to see the difference. He just needs more practice with the sharpener.

We cut up potatoes, onions, and carrots. A few of us did a chiffonade on some cabbage and minced some garlic. A few others diced up some celery. We all had to dice some Roma tomatoes. Some were diced some were mangled. Chef threw it all into the big steam-jacket pot with some water for a vegetable soup. When it was ready everyone grabbed huge bowls. I grabbed a coffee cup and asked Bar Code to fill it half way. I don't like vegetable soup but felt it was important to taste it. It was actually pretty good but that doesn't make me a fan.

Next week is sauces and stocks. If we get to pick a sauce I want to make a velouté sauce, first step to poutine!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again

I started back to class today. I had to cash in some of my pitiful retirement to do it but it was starting to look like there was no other way and that if I didn't do something drastic any possibility of ever taking this class again would be slim to none. (I can't believe that is one sentence).

Of course the school had to piss me off again. I had to reapply as a returning student (is that redundant) since I took two quarters off. That involved filling out paperwork with information they already have on file. I can see it myself on-line. Then I had to get another TB test because mine had expired one week ago and you need an up to date one every year. I needed that before I could register for my class But the test takes 48 hours to read which meant that I wouldn't have my test result until Thursday which is after Wednesday when classes begin. And registering after classes begin means I have to pay a late fee. Never mind the fact that I had everything together other than my TB test which they allowed after the fact the first time I applied and never mind the fact that my class didn't start until today NOT ON WEDNESDAY.

Piss ant school.

I think what really grates me is the fact that they treat me like a punk high school kid. I'm married. I'm almost 40. I have a kid. I already have a degree. I've already had a career. We pay property taxes that pays for this school to even exist. Stop treating me like I'm 17 and show me some respect. Even the president of the college was patronizing to me.

Piss ant school.

Class looks like it will be good. The silver lining in having taken two quarters off is that the high school kids are gone. The class is big, about 20 people but so was class with the punk high school kids so that's no problem for me. Most of the class are restaurant people, many commuting from as far away as 60 miles. A good third of the class look to be my age or older than me. We have one recent high school hottie who I was told by Ed, one of the elder cooks, is the mouth of the class. Her mom owns a catering company and apparently this girl knows it all. I actually watched her smart off to Chef Drake and get rewarded with sweeping and mopping the kitchen. Ed pointed out another young Turk and told me he was 18 with 40 years of experience. I laughed. Should be a good class.

Today was orientation so we were done in two hours. Except for Hottie, she still had to mop. Tomorrow we start with knife cuts. My knives are sharp so I'm ready.

Friday, July 10, 2009


That's how Rose says yogurt and that is just too cute.

A while back I made a lemon yogurt pound cake. Since I had to buy the large tub of Dannon plain yogurt I thought I might take the opportunity to make my own yogurt. I had just recently watched the Good Eats episode, again, on making your own yogurt and felt inspired. Rather than making a big quart of yogurt like Alton Brown did I thought I would use the opportunity to break out my yogurt maker. The yogurt maker was my Mom's which I saved from being thrown away. It was probably thirty years old and used five times.

The recipe Alton Brown has for yogurt is here. Simple enough. I left out the honey though. His method is a little odd because he only heats the milk up to 120°F rather than 190°F as so many other recipes call for. I think this is because milk today is pasteurized and homogenized and the higher temperature dates back to another time. I think.

My results were so so. The flavor and smell were correct but the consistency was thinner than Yoplait which I find to be the thinnest of yogurts. Like Yoplait is fine as Yoplait has always been my favorite but this was too thin. The yogurt was also grainy. So I decided to try again with some modifications.

I broke one of my rules of only changing only one variable at a time, however I only changed two at a time so I think I can work out what was effective and what was not with a few more trials.

My second attempt at yogurt making I swapped out the powdered milk for condensed milk. My thinking was that the powdered milk was causing the graininess and that the higher fat content from the condensed milk would thicken the yogurt up. The added sweetness would be nice too. I also used the last cup of yogurt from the last batch as the starter rather than the Dannon yogurt.

The results were the same. The yogurt was still thin and still grainy. This time I salvaged the yogurt by straining it and making Greek yogurt. That worked well and removed the graininess actually but I found the end product a little too tart. Back to the drawing board.

I did a little research on the Internet and came up with some changes for the third batch. I read at a university web site that the 190°F threshold really is important and while 120°F will work, results are more based on luck. So the third time around I heated the milk up to 190°F, left out the dry milk or the condensed milk all together and went back to the Dannon yogurt starter. I accidentally fermented this batch twelve hours instead of eight. Damn, that's three variables. Oh well.

The third batch was exactly the same as the first two. Thin and grainy. But for some reason I felt like I was making progress. I also learned that if I added one packet of True Lemon and one packet of Splenda I got a yogurt taste that I really liked.

Trial number four. This time I looked around the Internet for problems with grainy yogurt. Just about every website I found was a blog or forum with unhelpful advice. Cocky home cooks spouting their way was the best way, any other way was wrong and espousing just about every trick I had tried before. I finally stumbled on to a web page, an article from a university food science department I think, that dealt with issues facing large dairy producers. On the subject of grainy yogurt it mentioned pitching the starter at too high of a temperature or using an old starter. Another factor was poor blending of the starter in the milk. Back to the drawing board.

For the fourth batch I bought some plain Greek yogurt from Stoneybrook Farms. I used regular low fat milk bumped up with a little half and half to simulate whole milk. Again no additions of dry milk or condensed milk. I did bring the milk up to 190°F but this time I cooled the milk all the way down to about 80°F before I threw in the container of Greek yogurt (that was strictly an accident. My goal was 100°F). I whisked it all together until it was almost frothy. I filled my containers and started the maker. Since I did this in the evening I unintentionally fermented the yogurt twelve hours instead of eight.

Voila! Not only was the graininess gone but the yogurt was much thicker, more like a Dannon yogurt than a thin Yoplait. The yogurt was not overly tart for having been in the maker 12 hours. There is a little textural difference in the yogurt in the very bottom of the cup around the rim. I think this is from an unevenness in temperature profile in the yogurt maker. It probably runs hotter there. But otherwise I think I got it! I think the success came from a combination of using a fresher yogurt for a starter and pitching it at a lower temperature. I will try a few more batches to iron things out. Next batch I will try with the last cup of yogurt rather than buying some more Stoneybrook Farm's Greek yogurt. Then I will see if I cannot get the lower temperature to work instead of heating to 190°F.

I have to say there is no cost savings to making your own yogurt. The advantages are in being in control of the final product, it can be organic or any fat content you want. And it's kind of fun.