Monday, August 30, 2010

Spaghetti Squash

On Saturday morning Lee and I went to the farmer's market.  Though I had visited the Boggy Creek farm stand a couple of times in the past, this Saturday was my first visit to the downtown Austin Farmer's Market, despite years of past intentions to check it out.  We parked and walked our way around cranes and construction to the market, where I was immediately overwhelmed by crowds and heat.  Not to say that it was either extremely crowded or extremely hot, but my innate reaction to new situations where many people are talking, exchanging, and interacting is to turn into a data-in-only robot who must keep walking, forward walking, to avoid looking like I have no idea what I'm doing in this place.  Which is how I felt.  Luckily, Lee stopped me and asked if I was as thirsty as he suddenly was, and I led us back to a juice stand I'd spotted earlier.

Sitting in the shade of a cypress tree, apart from the crowd and now observing, my state of sensory overload faded quickly.  I drank my cantaloupe-lime-rosemary concoction and watched as young families with strollers, older couples with a bag of produce each, and market staff wearing name badges walked across the square.  I also reviewed the tents that we had walked by on our first round, deciding where to shop for vegetables.  Before leaving, I bought some okra, a spaghetti squash, four, small purple eggplants, two bell peppers, and several tomatoes.

Last night I made a farmer's market inspired meal of Chunky Summer Sauce over Baked Spaghetti Squash.  The strands of the spaghetti squash, oven baked and then tossed with butter and Parmesan cheese, were crunchy, delicious, and very filling with the summer vegetables.  The Chunky Summer Sauce is one of my "pasta-with-stuff" recipes that also goes well with chunky pastas like penne, bow-ties, or ravioli.  I first started making the sauce during the rainy June of 2003, when my community garden plot was producing huge eggplant, tomato, and basil harvests.

Baked Spaghetti Squash
Adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prick the squash with a fork so that the skin won't burst while cooking.  Bake the squash for 40 minutes to 1-1/2 hours, depending on the size, or until the squash is tender.

When the squash is cool enough to handle, cut it in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and gooey middle part.  With a fork, "comb" the squash flesh (the "spaghetti" will pull off in long strands) into a bowl.  Add butter (1 or 2 tablespoons depending on squash size, to taste) to the squash strands and stir to melt and distribute the butter.  Fold Parmesan cheese (1/4 to 1/2 cup depending on squash size, to taste) into the squash strands.  Serve the squash by itself or topped with Chunky Summer Sauce.

Chunky Summer Sauce

olive oil
4 small purple eggplants, cut in half lengthwise, then into 1/2 inch slices
1 onion, quartered and sliced
5 to 7 cloves of garlic, minced
5 Serrano peppers, seeded and minced
1 medium red, yellow, or purple bell pepper, quartered and sliced
4 tomatoes
fresh basil leaves, rolled and sliced
cracked pepper

Fill a medium saucepan about 2/3 full of water and bring to a boil.  (Use a large saucepan if you want to use the same water for boiling pasta later.)  Cut the top (where the stem attaches) out of the tomatoes.  Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water for about 1-1/2 minutes, or until the skin begins to peel.  Carefully remove the tomatoes from the boiling water.  Rinse the tomatoes under cold water.  Remove the skins from tomatoes.  Chop the tomatoes and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan.  Add the eggplant and stir to coat.  The eggplant will soak up the olive oil.  As the pan becomes dry, add more olive oil.  Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon salt over the eggplant.  Continue sautéing the eggplant over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the eggplant starts to brown.  At this point the eggplant will release the olive oil that it absorbed earlier.

Add the onion to the pan and continue to sauté on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is softened.  Add the garlic and Serrano peppers and stir well.  Sauté for another minute or two.  Add the bell pepper, stir, and continue to sauté the mixture for a few minutes, or until the bell pepper has softened.  Add the chopped tomatoes, stir well, and cook until the water in the tomatoes has been released.  Turn off the heat and stir in the basil leaves.  Add fresh cracked pepper and salt to taste.  Serve over pasta or spaghetti squash.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Making Fresh Paneer

Every summer for the past few years I've visited my parents in Oregon for a week of their best season.  While I'm there, I enjoy fresh berries and peaches from the fruit stand on highway 22, hikes in the Douglas fir forests, a trek to the coast for a good dose of ocean air (bring your hat!), and pints of locally-made, fresh-hopped, unique beers from the epicenter of the craft-beer scene.  The last couple of years we've also started a tradition of visiting Powell's Books in Portland, where my mom and I, every wider-eyed by minute, accumulate stacks of books from sections ranging from literature to mycology while my dad, and this year Lee, follow us around looking a little bit mystified.  This year I spent time in the cookbook section, where I found an Indian cookbook with straight-forward looking recipes.

I love cheese, so it's no surprise that the first recipe I decided that I had to make, even before I bought the book, was for fresh cheese, or paneer.   Paneer, often called homemade cheese or cottage cheese in the ingredient lists on the boxes of ready-to-eat Indian foods, is the chunky, fresh cheese that I save for my last bite when I eat Palak Paneer, Matar Paneer, Paneer Butter Masala, or so many other paneer meals that I find at the Indian grocery store.  According to this recipe, all I needed to make paneer was a half gallon of milk, cheesecloth, and a bit of white vinegar.  And, while making paneer takes 5 to 7 hours from start to finish, it only requires about an hour of actual work in the kitchen.  As soon as I was back in Austin, I got my ingredients and chose a day when I could schedule my activities around cheese making.

Making cheese from scratch was satisfying.  Standing over a pot of steaming, sweet, nutritious-smelling whole milk reminded me of my first cooking job in a small kitchen in Salem, Oregon, where I learned to make milk-based sauces from scratch.  As I stirred the warming milk, I decided that one of my next projects would be to make mac and cheese with a homemade cheese sauce.  Once the milk was boiling, I began stirring in the vinegar, and panicked briefly when nothing much happened.  As I continued to add vinegar, though, a yellowish liquid formed on the top of the milk, and within seconds, sticky, white clumps of curd began separating from the clearish whey.  The science teacher in me could have looked to chemistry to explain the transformation, could have thought in terms of the acidic vinegar and its effect on the suspension of biomolecules of milk, but I was too busy being impressed by the fact that my milk was turning into cheese, just like that, just like magic, at the tip of my spatula.

Cheese lover that I am, it's about time that I understand what is really meant by the phrase, "separate the curds from the whey."  Now I know.  I also have a new appreciation for the price of cheese, given that it takes a half gallon of milk to make two cups of cheese.  Cheap cheese must be made from cheap milk, which invariably comes from unhappy cows.  Which is not good news, given my cheap sharp-cheddar habit.  It may be time to reevaluate my cheese buying.  In the meantime, here's a recipe for delicious, homemade cheese made from milk from happy, grass-fed Texas cows.

Fresh Paneer
Adapted from New Indian Home Cooking by Madhu Gadia.

This recipe makes about two cups of paneer, which didn't seem like much compared to the half gallon of milk that it required.  However, I was able make a full batch of Matar Paneer (Pea and Cheese Curry) using just one cup of paneer.  That batch of Matar Paneer was dinner for two on Thursday and  lunch for two on Saturday, and I still have the other cup of paneer to use in another recipe.

Though the recipe didn't specify, I have read that making cheese requires milk that has not been ultra-pasteurized.  I used whole milk from Way Back When Dairy, where milk is low-temperature pasteurized, non-homogenized, and produced by grass-fed cows, and it made delicious fresh cheese.
Plan ahead on the timing!  To make paneer for tonight's dinner, start the process at 10 or 11 am.  It takes about a half hour to make the curds, then the curds drip for another half hour.  It only takes a few minutes to crumble and shape the curds into a block, but then the block of cheese is pressed into shape for 4 to 6 hours before it is ready.  Only then are the kitchen counter and cutting board (used to press the cheese) available for dinner prep.

8 cups of whole milk (1/2 gallon)
8 teaspoons of white vinegar
2 tablespoons of water

Mix the vinegar and water in a small bowl and set aside.  Line a colander with two layers of cheesecloth and set the colander into your sink or in a large bowl.

Heat the milk in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to avoid scorching the milk.  When the milk comes to a full boil, reduce the heat to a simmer.  Gradually add the vinegar mixture to the boiling milk and stir gently.  Simmer as the curds separate from the whey.  All the curds are separated from the whey when the whey is greenish yellow.  Remove from the heat.

Pour the curds and whey through the cheesecloth-lined colander.  Discard the whey.  Rinse the curds with about 2 cups of cold water.  Gather the cheesecloth so the curds are in the center and tie to enclose.  Hand the curds over your sink or a bowl to allow the excess liquid to drip for at least 30 minutes.  [Note: I left the curds hanging for over two hours and that was too long because the curds took on their hanging shape and were harder to form into a block later.]

Place the curds on a clean surface and mix with your hands until the curds become crumbly.  Gather together in a ball and pat into a rectangular shape about 1/2 inch thick.  Place it back in cheesecloth and wrap.  Place between two thick stacks of paper towels and set it on a flat surface.  [Next time I'm going to try using washable towels because this felt like a wasteful use of paper towels.]  Set a cutting board on top.  Put a heavy (about 15 pounds) object on top of the cutting board to flatten the cheese.  Let it rest for 4 to 6 hours.  Unwrap the cheese and cut it into 1/2 inch squares.  Refrigerate for up to 2 days of freeze for later use.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Cold Front

The first cold front of the season rolled through this morning.  Just as the first, tentative day of spring is bitterly cold, more winter than spring, in northern climates, here in Austin, the first cold front rarely brings much change.  The wind flipped around, flowing from the north instead of the south.  Clouds blocked the sun for part of the day, lowering the high temperature of the afternoon from the 100+ range down to the mid-nineties.  It is still very hot, but today's north wind promises that change is coming, that temperatures will fall, sometime in the next several weeks.

The temporary change in the wind also signals that my transition is coming to an end.  At the end of May, I left a job that did not suit me, finally making formal an ending that I had been carrying within me for too long.  In the weeks since then I have inhabited what William Bridges calls the "neutral zone" of the transition, the unstructured space between ending and beginning that, for me, for this transition, included a lot of yoga, a lot of reading and writing, as much gardening as I could manage in the heat, and an intentional lack of doing.  Now that I am reaching the other side of the transition, I find that I have become attached to the undefined space of the in-between.  Beginning again requires moving from the comfort of thought into action.

So, action:

This will be the space where I will record what comes next.  When the weather allows, I'm going to plant my cool-season greens garden.  With the help of a few ground-soaking rains, I hope to convert more of my yard, which is really a mowed, dried-up weed patch, into productive garden space.  As the temperatures drop, and cooking with heat becomes practical again, I want to make meals based around plants from the garden and food from the farmer's market.  And I plan to spend plenty of weekend afternoons walking with Lee down the greenbelt, watching the Austin version of the seasons changing.  Simply put, I want to connect with, and write about, my dealings with the plants in my life.