Archive for the ‘How To’ Category

Homemade Vinegar Part 2 – Wine and Raspberries

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

About 3 weeks ago I shared my first venture into making vinegar.  I had mentioned that I would be saving some of the vinegar mother to start a batch of white wine vinegar.  Even though the project isn’t done, I’d like to go ahead and show you what I’ve started.  We’re at the beginning of the growing season, and I want to get the information up for those who would like to take advantage of in season produce.   Rhubarb is already in season here in Indiana, and strawberries should be coming along shortly.

Above is a picture of a batch of raspberry vinegar that I just started.  The weird-looking stuff at the top is the mother from the apple vinegar that I made back in February. Here’s what it looks like on a plate before I added it to the raspberries.

I was scrounging through my freezer and found a gallon bag of raspberries from the summer of 2009. Some of them were starting to look a little freezer burned around the edges, so I wanted to get them used up.  I’m hoping for a nice rich raspberry vinegar to use on summer salads.  Once I thawed the berries, I placed them in a half gallon jar with a big dollop of raw local honey.  To top up the container I needed less than a cup of water, so the berry juice is thick and not watered down.  I have high hopes for this batch. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that I placed the mother in the top the jar, but you probably figured that out already.

I also started batches from some elderberry wine my parents made last summer, and some tomato wine that we’ve all decided wasn’t very nice to drink, but should make good vinegar. This reminds me that I had promised an update on the elderberry wine, so I will try not to forget to write about it soon.

And, here is the wine with a piece of the mother floating in it.  Later in the summer I’ll get everything bottled up, and let you know how the batches turned out.  If any of you decide to experiment with different vinegars, please do drop me a line.

10-14-11 Update:  Unfortunately, the vinegar did not turn out. Some searching led me to the Leeners site, a company specializing in cultures and yeasts for fermented foods. It appears my big mistake with the raspberries was using so little water. After the initial ferment the raspberry developed mold. The problem with the wine was two fold.  First, because my wine had an alcohol content in excess of 9%, I should have diluted it at the rate of one part water to two parts wine.  Secondly, I discovered that there’s a better chance of converting wine to vinegar if you use an actual wine vinegar mother.  I have plans to purchase mothers from Leeners, as well as the vinegar making book.

Homemade Cider Vinegar

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Recently, I decided I wanted to learn to make my own vinegar. I happened to recall that Leslie, an online herbie friend of mine, had tried her hand at vinegar this past fall. After checking out her blog post on making vinegar, I also picked her brain clean, and she was kind enough to hold my hand over the several weeks it took to make my vinegar. A big “thank you”, Leslie! If you take a look at her post, you’ll notice that she was taught how to make vinegar by someone she knew.  Unfortunately, Leslie’s friend’s blog with the step-by-step updates is no longer available.  One of things I enjoy about the online herb community I’m involved with is the willingness to share knowledge.

What I love about this particular method of making vinegar is that it can be made in small batches, and utilizes apple scraps that would normally end up in my compost pile.  I used the chopped up cores and peelings of some organic apples I used to make a batch of apple crisp.

I decided to use an half gallon glass jar for this project, instead of my crock, so that I would be able to watch the whole process and take pictures.  In the future I will probably use one of my smaller crocks.  On a side note, it’s very important to use a container made of a non-reactive material like glass, crockery, or stainless steel.  Your finished vinegar is highly acidic and will react with a material like aluminum.

I placed the apple scraps in the jar and covered them with water. Next, I mixed in a nice dollop of raw local honey and about 1/4 cup of Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar that I picked up at the health food store.

The addition of honey helps get the first stage of fermentation going, where sugars are converted to alcohol.  I didn’t have access to a vinegar “mother” for this first attempt, so I used the Bragg vinegar to provide Acetobacter.  Acetobacter is an acetic acid bacteria required for the second stage of fermentation, where the alcohol is converted to vinegar.  In the future I will be able to start batches from the mother that developed in this batch (more on that later).

Once I had given the whole thing a good stir , I covered the jar with a piece of butter muslin and set the jar aside to start doing it’s thing. It’s important for the mixture to get plenty of air while the fermentation process is taking place, thus the use of a cloth cover.  If you don’t use a cover you might end up having problems with flies and such getting into your project.

Now, after the above warning to keep your project covered, I will admit to keeping my project uncovered for the first few days.   I wanted to be able to provide a few good shots of the process, and it had been cool enough that flies weren’t a problem.  I placed a little antique glass canning jar lid on top of the mixture to hold the apples down below the surface of the liquid, and still allow me to see what was going on.

Within 24 hours I saw the first bubbly signs that yeast were happily munching away, and fermentation was underway.

By the end of day 2 serious foaming was underway, and I could see the gaseous bubbles moving under the glass lid much like carbonation bubbling up in a glass of soda.


Once the primary fermentation activity had settled down, I covered the jar and set it aside for the next several weeks. When I checked it at week 3 I found a skim across the top of the liquid, which indicated the secondary fermentation was progressing along.

This substance that forms at the top of the vinegar is called a “mother”.  It contains the acetic acid bacteria that convert the alcohol to vinegar, and can be saved to start future batches of vinegar. As time passes, this bacterial colony continues to multiply and increase in mass.  By week 5, which was this morning, the mother had increased significantly, and my vinegar tasted sufficiently “vinegary”.

I removed the mother, setting it aside in a small dish, and strained the finished vinegar into a quart jar.  After tasting the vinegar, I decided that I’d like it to be just a little more sour, so I placed a small piece of the mother in the jar and will take it out when the flavor is just a little stronger.    The rest of the mother has gone into a small jar with a bit of the vinegar, and I will be using it soon to start a batch of white wine vinegar.

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.

Making Chèvre (goat cheese)

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

I’ve been under the weather over the last few days with a fun little virus making it’s way around our household.  I made this goat cheese just before the bug attacked me, but wasn’t able to find the motivation to write a blog post. Also, Don’t be surprised if my posts are a little erratic over the next 3 months, as the busy season in my shop is underway, and I’ve begun working more hours.

So, on to making goat cheese! It’s not all that difficult, and can be made using standard kitchen equipment. If you’re interested in making goat cheese, I’m assuming you have access to some goat milk. The only things you will probably need to pick up are chèvre culture and some butter muslin.  Both can be purchased at New England Cheesemaking Supply. In fact, I just placed an order for more  chèvre culture, butter muslin, and yogurt culture, so at the end of this post I’ll give away some culture and muslin.  I do have some special little molds for making chèvre in a traditional shape, but I find the butter muslin to be more practical. I save the molds for making cheese for special occasions.

I used to raise my own small herd of Toggenburg dairy goats.  Unfortunately, life circumstances required me to sell my goats a few years ago. However, I have a good friend who has been raising Toggs for more than 35 years, and she and I trade milk for my husband’s maple syrup. I miss my goats, and I hope that maybe some day they will fit back into my life.

Let’s begin with goat milk. The finished quality of the cheese depends entirely on the quality of the milk. High quality milk comes from healthy, well fed animals kept in a healthy environment. Milking should take place in a clean environment and should be cooled as quickly as possible. The choice to use pasteurized or unpasteurized will be yours.  Personally, because the milk I use is not tested, I use the flash method of pasteurization, heating the milk to 160°F for 15 seconds.

Begin by placing 1 to 2 gallons of  milk in a large pot and bringing the temperature to 72°F to 80°F. I do this by placing my pot in a sink full of hot water, stirring occasionally and checking the temperature with my meat thermometer.  Once the milk reaches the appropriate temperature, sprinkle a packet of chèvre culture over the surface of the milk and stir until mixed thoroughly.

Cover the milk and allow it to sit undisturbed at room temperature for 24 hours, or until the milk is firmly set. When it is ready the curd will separate from the whey and it should look something like this.

Ladle the curd into a colander lined with butter muslin.

Next, take the four corners of the muslin and tie them together with a couple of solid knots. Hang the cheese over an empty bowl to allow the whey to drain for 6 – 12 hours. I usually start my cheese making in the evening after dinner. Then when it’s time to drain the cheese, I let it hang overnight, and it’s ready the next morning. I’ll describe my draining set up, but you may want to figure something different.  I use big “S” hooks. I put one end of the hook through the knot of my muslin and hang the whole thing by the other end of the hook from a knob on one of my kitchen cabinets.

Now for the giveaway. I will give away one 5 pack of chèvre culture and a two yard length of reusable cotton butter muslin.  Leave a comment at the bottom of this post and I’ll draw from the names.  Deadline to enter your comment is this Friday evening, September 10 at 8 PM.

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.

Pasta Verde

Monday, June 28th, 2010

I have a problem…. I freely admit it…. I’m a pasta addict. I’ll eat the stuff in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors. I’ll eat it with red sauce, green sauce, white sauce, no sauce!.  I don’t know if I’ve ever met a pasta I wouldn’t eat.

One of my favorite cookbooks (and I have way too many) is The Pasta Bible. If you like to make pasta, and make it frequently, then I highly recommend adding this book to your collection. The spine of my book is broken, if that tells you anything about how much I’ve used it.

Like any good addict, I’ve also got paraphernalia to accompany my addiction. My husband is my enabler. He gave me my paraphernalia as a Christmas gift about 14 years ago. My paraphernalia is a Cuisinart pasta extruder.  The machine has been discontinued, but the company that made it for  Cuisinart  is still around, and they manufacture a similar Lello pasta maker. Even better, Lello’s machine costs much less than mine did. Fourteen years of service is a great testimonial to this work horse of a pasta machine. Also, if you own a Kitchen Aid mixer, I’ve been hearing great things about the pasta attachment available for use with it.

The following recipe works great for my machine, which does all the hard work. All I have to do is dump the ingredients into the mixing bowl and let it mix for several minutes. Then I stand there and cut the pasta to the desired length as it comes out of the extruding die. Assuming most of you don’t have a machine, I should probably provide a tutorial on making pasta by hand. The gal who wrote this tutorial uses a hand crank machine, but you can use a rolling pin.

This pasta’s  vibrant green color comes from chlorophyll.  If you missed it, you can learn how to extract chlorophyll in my previous post

Pasta Verde

4 cups durum semolina flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 eggs
1/4 cup chlorophyll

Place the eggs and chlorophyll in a measuring cup and mix together.  You need exactly 1 cup of liquid. If needed, add enough water to the mixture to bring it up to 1 cup.

Add your liquid ingredients to your dry ingredients according to the method you are using (make a well in the flour and add the liquid ingredients to the well if you are making pasta by hand). It should look something like this when you’re finished mixing.

Once your pasta dough is mixed you can roll it out and cut it, or in my case stand there and cut the pasta as it comes out of the machine.  I made rigatoni.

A few comments on my ingredients.  I try to use as many local and organic ingredients as possible. However, I live in a rather remote community where organics can be difficult to obtain.  I use organic, free range eggs from my own flock, but organic semolina is a difficult animal to locate and I’ve been forced to have it shipped in. A great place for organic grains and flours is Heartland Mill out of Kansas.

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.