Archive for the ‘Cooking Techniques’ Category

Seriously… Don’t Buy Me Another Kitchen Gadget!

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

tart cherries

I needed a short break, so I’m writing this post before going back to my task.  My husband and I went to a neighbor’s this afternoon and picked about 10 pounds of tart cherries, so you know what I’ve been doing today.  Yep, that’s right … pitting cherries.  Which reminded me of how much I’ve come to loath kitchen gadgets.

One year I found this in my Christmas stocking.  I’m sure my mom will forgive me for the public disclosure.  I never used it, and finally gave it to Goodwill.

pineapple cutter

Another year I got these very cool looking herb scissors.  Again, I’ll need forgiveness from another family member. They’re in a drawer in my spare bedroom, still in the original packaging.

herb scissors

Years ago, in a moment of insanity at one of those home parties, I bought something that looked like this.  Talk about a useless piece of crap! Too many parts to clean, and the “blade” dulled in about 15 seconds.

food chopper

Most of the kitchen gadgets that I’ve gotten rid of over the years, have lost their place in my kitchen thanks to this bad baby, my Wusthof Ikon chef knife with a blackwood handle. It’s heavy, perfectly balanced, alarmingly sharp, and can chop and dice just about anything I throw at it.


So, guess who is not using a cherry pitter?  Yup, this girl….. er, I guess I haven’t been a girl for a while now.  Instead, I’m using my smallest stainless steel funnel.  Just shove the tip of the funnel into the stem end, give it a little push, and viola!  Pit pops out the other side.  I love multifunctional basics.  My break’s over now, so back to the pits. I’ll let you know what becomes of the cherries at another time.

cherry pitter


Fire Roasted Tomatoes

Monday, September 5th, 2011

The last few weeks have been a blur of canning, preserving, and getting our household ready for winter.  In the last two weeks  I’ve frozen fire roasted tomatoes and canned dilly beans, roasted red peppers, pickled eggplant, zucchini relish, tomatoes, and elderberry juice. I’m going to show you the roasted tomatoes now, but after that which would you like to see next?  I winged the zucchini relish recipe and forgot to write it down, but I think I can remember what I did.

Last weekend my husband and I hosted a wood splitting party in the woods. We invited lots of friends and family to come help us cut and split our winter wood supply, and I cooked breakfast and lunch over a campfire. We also a threw a little fun into the mix with some skeet shooting.  This winter when the snow is blowing and the wind howling, we’ll remember our friends as we toss another log into the wood burner. As you can see, we still have a lot of stacking to do.

Fire Roasted Tomatoes
Plum style tomatoes

These are the real deal. Not oven roasted. Not the canned tomatoes from the grocery labeled “fire-roasted” (which taste nothing like what I make on my grill).  This is painfully easy, but requires a little time and patience. I think it’s worth the effort. Although any tomato could be roasted,  I highly recommend firm, ripe (but not overly ripe) plum style tomatoes which will hold up better on the grill.  I grow San Marzanos and think they’re the best cooking tomato on the planet.

Wash and dry the tomatoes before roasting.  Instead of dunking the tomatoes in scalding water to remove the skins, the tomatoes are going to be roasted to char and loosen the  skins.

Preheat your grill, making sure it’s good and hot.  This works best using screaming hot temperatures. Plop those tomatoes right onto your grill, and close the lid for a couple of minutes.  Don’t be surprised if you hear some snapping and popping noises as the skins dry out and char.

I check the tomatoes frequently, and turn with a pair of tongs as the tomato skins split and blacken.  The tomatoes will gradually soften as they roast, cooking them just enough to freeze well.  I suppose they could also be canned, but I tend to use the roasting/freezing method when I have smaller quantities on hand that I want to deal with quickly.  I save canning for a day when I have a lot of produce, and lugging out all of my canning equipment will be worth the effort.

Remove the tomatoes to a shallow pan to cool when the skins are loosened and charred.

Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle comfortably, start peeling the skins off. Do not try to rinse them, or you’ll lose the flavor you’ve work so hard to get.  It’s fine if there are little blackened specks on the tomatoes.  After peeling, pack the tomatoes into freezer containers, pressing down to push out air bubbles. Pour any juices left in the pan over the packed tomatoes. Freeze for use in your favorite winter recipes.  One of these days I’ll get around to sharing my Roasted Tomato and Wild Rice Soup.

Roasting Pumpkins

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

A couple of weeks ago a friend told me he had a Japanese friend who wanted to know  if the decorative pumpkins sold in grocery stores could be prepared to eat. The small pumpkins (about the size of a cantaloupe) are usually sugar pumpkins (aka pie pumpkins), and are the best type for eating.  Each fall I usually get a few organic sugar pumpkins from a neighboring organic farmer.  I roast them and then freeze for later use (pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin risotto, pumpkin cookies… stuff like that). Pumpkins sold for carving are edible, but don’t taste as nice as sugar pumpkin.  I don’t know if I’m imagining it or not, but it always seems that I get the best flavor from smaller pumpkins, so I try choose the really small ones…. a little larger than a softball, but no larger than one of those mini basketballs.  Additionally, the smaller size is so much easier to handle.

I’m sure you can find a bazillion different instructions online for roasting pumpkin. This is just my way of doing it.   One quick tip: a good sharp 8 or 9 inch chef’s knife makes quick work of the job. Just be sure to take your time and be safe.

First, remove the stem end.

Next, flip it so it’s standing on the flat, cut end (safety precaution) and slice it in half.

Scoop out seeds and pulp.

I usually just roast the halves, but this time I wanted some chunks for pumpkin risotto, so I roasted some both ways. I cut a couple of the halves into wedges, peeled with a vegetable peeler, and diced.

Place pumpkin halves on a foil lined baking sheet, cut side down, and roast in a 400°F oven.  If you place them cut side up, water will collect in the hollow, keeping the sugars from caramelizing. Caramelization is what you want, and where all that nice roasty pumpkin flavor comes from.

** Bunny Trail Alert ** I learned something from my oldest teenage son a couple of years ago. Did you know there are lock tabs on the ends of aluminum foil boxes?  I didn’t, and they’re absolutely genius. They keep the roll of foil from coming out of the box when you’re trying to tear a piece off.

I removed the diced pumpkin from the oven after about 15 minutes, and then shoved the halves back in for a total roasting time of about 30 minutes.  Roasting time may vary depending on the size and thickness of the pumpkins. Roast until fork tender and slightly browned. My skins bubbled up a bit, and there was a beautiful clear, thick orange liquid on the baking sheet.  Be sure to use the juice, as it’s packed with flavor.

Scoop the roasted flesh from the skins to use in your favorite recipes.  You can also freeze for later use. In my next couple of blog posts, I’ll give you my recipes for Pumpkin Risotto and Autumn Ham Soup with Pumpkin & Barley.

Fire Roasting Peppers

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

This year I experimented with some new (to me) heirloom varieties of vegetables in my garden, among them these gorgeoumous (yeah, I know it’s not a real word) Bulgarian Chervena Chushka roasting peppers. I found the seeds at Seed Savers Exchange and planted them in late February so the seedlings would be ready to place in the garden by mid to late May. These peppers were a rousing success! After roasting this batch, I swore I would never mess around with a bell pepper again. The peppers ripened to a nice deep red and the flavor …. oh so sweet! I’ve only just begun harvesting, but it appears that each of the 8 plants I set out are producing up to 30 peppers per plant! I should mention that I mulched my peppers with a well composted manure, as peppers are heavy feeders. I get my composted manure from some friends who raise grass fed beef and adhere to organic farming practices.

Over the course of the summer I’ve spoken to the owner of a local wholesale greenhouse, an organic farmer, and a fruit and vegetable market owner, all having confirmed that this year has been a very poor year for peppers in my area.  All three were very surprised to hear about my bumper crop of roasting peppers, and two of them asked if I would be willing to save some seed for them.  Obviously, I will be saving seeds for next year.

If you’ve never roasted peppers before, I highly recommend giving it a go. You’ll never want to eat jarred roasted peppers again. I’m roasting large quantities, so the grill is the only way to go, but you can roast a single pepper over the flame on your gas range.

Before beginning, you will want to have a few things ready to go.  Once you start you will want to stay with your peppers until they are finished.  You will need the following:

Plastic wrap
Paring knife

Simply turn on your flame and place the peppers over the flame, turning them occasionally with tongs. Allow the skins to become charred.  When finished the skins don’t need to be entirely blackened, but the parts that are not blackened should at least appear shriveled. Despite throwing them on the grill at the same time, each pepper finishes in it’s own time. The pepper on the right is almost finished while the pepper on the left still has a way to go.

Once the peppers reach the desired done-ness, remove from the grill and place in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the peppers to steam in their own heat. Steaming loosens the skins making them easy to remove. Keep them covered for at least 15 minutes, and resist the temptation to uncover and let the steam out. I’m a little like Pandora so I use a clear bowl …. it removes temptation, allowing me to see everything going on in the bowl.   I let my peppers sit for about an half hour so they would be cool enough to handle while removing the charred skins.

To remove the skins, use a sharp paring knife and start by cutting a circle around the stem. Then carefully pull the stem end out of the pepper, most of the seeds will come out with it. After removing the stem insert a finger and remove most of the remaining seeds. Next, using the edge of a paring knife peel the charred skin from the peppers. Most of the skins should be loose enough you can even use your fingers to peel them. Do NOT rinse your peppers! They may seem a bit messy, but rinsing will destroy that great fire roasted flavor you worked to so hard to get.

Once skinned,  slit each pepper down it’s length opening it like a book.  Scrape away any remaining seeds.

There are several things you can do with your roasted peppers. First, you can use them right away in your favorite recipe. I like to freeze mine in small heavy duty freezer bags. I usually freeze about 8 ounces to a bag which is the perfect amount for my favorite Roasted Red Pepper Soup. I suppose you’re going to want me to post the recipe. Another method for saving your roasted gems is to store them in olive oil in the refrigerator. This method is best for small quantities that you plan to use within a few weeks. Freezing is probably the best method for large quantities and long term storage. I imagine peppers could be canned, but I’ve not tried it so can’t recommend it.

Homemade Buttermilk

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

As much as I use and reference the buttermilk I make, I figure I had better hurry up and show you how I make it. After all, the name of the blog is Birdworms & Buttermilk.

I’m one of those nut jobs who likes to drink buttermilk, and it’s all my dad’s fault (yes, I just heard your collective “Eeeeewwwww!!!!”). He introduced me to buttermilk when I was a very little kid, and didn’t know that buttermilk is supposed to be icky. Even worse, he taught me to drink it the way Southerners and hillbillies do, with salt and pepper.  And, before anyone thinks of writing me to chew me out for saying “hillbilly”, you need to know that I think hillbillies are awesome people…. one of my favorite people is a self professed hillbilly from the hills of Kentucky, a really cool guy.

Before getting into the how-to part of things, I’d like to highlight a couple of points. To begin, the buttermilk I’m referring to is cultured buttermilk, not churn buttermilk (the watery stuff left over from making butter).  Also, I make my buttermilk from whole milk, so it’s not low fat. If you want to try making your own buttermilk, feel free to use low fat or skim milk. Next, with the whole probiotic craze we’re seeing in the media these days, it’s worth mentioning that buttermilk is a great source of these beneficial bacteria, and WAY less expensive than yogurt.

Because I make so many cultured milk products (buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt), I invested in an insulated container call a Yogotherm in which to make my yummy goodness.  I get most of my cheesemaking supplies, including my cultures, from New England Cheesemaking Supply. I love their direct set cultures, which make cheesemaking and culturing a no-brainer-snap. Honestly, you don’t need a fancy piece of equipment to make buttermilk. If it’s summer time, you can make it in quart canning jar and find a spot (out of the sun) where the jar will maintain a temperature of about 80 degrees.  Another great option is a Rubbermaid  1/2 Gallon  Thermal Jug. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you already have one lurking around in your garage or basement. Just make sure you sanitize it first. Another thing you’re going to need to make buttermilk is a culture to add to your milk. I use New England’s direct set buttermilk culture. Lastly, you will need a thermometer. A standard meat thermometer should do the trick.

Homemade Buttermilk
1 to 2 quarts whole, skim, or low fat milk
1 packet direct set buttermilk culture

1. Heat milk to 85 degrees. I do this in the microwave, but you can also do it by placing your container in a sink full of hot water.

2. Sprinkle buttermilk culture over the surface of your warmed milk and wait a couple of minutes for the powder to rehydrate.

3. Stir milk until culture is thoroughly dissolved and mixed into the milk.

4. Pour milk into your insulated container or canning jar.  Let milk sit at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours, or until thickened. Because I use 2 quarts of milk at a time, I allow mine to sit for up to 36 hours.

5.  Once your buttermilk is finished culturing, refrigerate and use within 2 weeks.

Just for a little fun, if you leave a comment at the bottom of this post, I’ll draw from the names and send someone a 5 pack of buttermilk starter culture. Deadline to enter your comment is this Sunday evening, July 18th at 8 PM.

Extracting Chlorophyll from Leafy Greens

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Chlorophyll extraction is considered an advanced cooking technique, which I think is ridiculous considering how easy it is.  I was surprised to discover that you can’t find much on the Interwebs about chlorophyll in cooking.  You ask, “Chlorophyll in cooking?  Huh?”  Chlorophyll imparts a beautiful green, tasteless color to foods. Additionally, it is very healthy.  If you’d like to do some further reading, here’s more information on chlorophyll than you ever wanted to know.

I’m going to cover chlorophyll in two parts.  Part 1 will be extraction. In Part 2 I’ll show you how to use chlorophyll to make gorgeous Pasta Verde. Also, I’ll follow up with a recipe using the pasta to make a  salad I’m planning to take to an annual family reunion on the 4th of July.

I hate waste.  When my spinach or arugula bolts I have a problem with pulling it up and throwing it on the compost pile.  Using bolted greens to extract chlorophyll is my solution to “wasting” the leafy greens that I go through so much trouble to grow in my  little garden.

This morning after the dew had dried, I cut the spinach stalks and stripped the leaves.  I ended up with a little over half a pound of spinach.  I plant small 18 x 18 inch square patches of spinach and arugula several times throughout the growing season, so I almost always have some available.  I have two  favorite varieties of spinach.  Monstrueux De Viroflay, an old French Heirloom variety,  is planted in the cooler temperatures of spring, and again in early fall for overwintering.   Summer Perfection, a heat tolerant variety from Renee’s Garden Seeds,  is planted once summer temperatures gear up.

The next step is to macerate the spinach with some water.  I used about 2 cups of water for my half pound of spinach, placed it in my food processor, and whizzed the behoozit out of it (thanks to my friend Tina for that wonderful new addition to my vocabulary).

Once the greens are processed, strain the pulp through a jelly bag or a couple of layers of fine cheesecloth or butter muslin to obtain a deep, dark green juice.  Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the pulp. The pulp is what my compost pile finally gets.

This next part is the cool part! Place the juice in a heavy, stainless steel sauce pan and gently heat over medium heat to approximately 150 degrees. Be careful not to let it get too hot.  What you’ll be watching for is the chlorophyll to separate from the water portion of the juice.  You know you’re there when it looks sort of like algae floating in murky green pond water.

Remove from heat and pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Press very gently on the green paste in the strainer to remove some of the excess water (which I throw on my compost pile). The green paste is your chlorophyll. If you won’t be using it immediately, cover and store in the refrigerator.  It’s best if used within a couple of days.  I’ve never done it before, but some day I plan to experiment to see if it will freeze well.  I got about 1/4 cup of chlorophyll from the half pound of spinach.  1/4 cup is what will be needed for a batch of Pasta Verde.