Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Paneer Makhani

I'm not Irish, so for St. Patrick's day, I ate paneer makhani. It was almost going to be a beer and popcorn night, but the raw m___ in the fridge needed to be made into something. It made lovely soft curds that soaked up the flavors beautifully. This was made entirely from local ingredients, aside from the spices, which ended up making it really HOT! I savored the fragrance, flavor and intensity of this meal while thinking about returning to India this summer. Richly colored saris, camels and cows on the road, cheerful temples, dust, sun and heat are beckoning.

Paneer Makhani

butter, ghee or oil
1/2 tsp each whole spices (cumin, fenugreek, mustard are my favorites)
chopped green chilis (1-3 depending on your heat tolerance)
chopped garlic (1-3 cloves)
1 T grated fresh ginger
coarsely chopped onions, red peppers or other vegetables, as per your taste
2 cups fresh paneer, cubed (see instructions below)
1/2-1 cup tomato paste (I food mill frozen tomatoes to make the paste)
1/2 cup cream, milk or yogurt
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
powdered spice mix for paneer makhani (see note)
salt and pepper to taste

Heat your fat of choice in a cast iron pan over medium high heat. Add the spices and heat in the oil/butter/ghee until they sizzle and are fragrant. Add the chili, garlic and ginger (avert your face!) and stir on high heat for about a minute. Add whatever additional vegetables you like and saute until soft. Add the paneer cubes and gently stir to coat with spices. Add the tomato paste and your dairy product of choice. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and lower the heat. Simmer until it reaches the desired thickness (thin for over rice, thick for eating with paratha or chapati) and season with spices, salt and pepper. Sprinkle the top with cilantro right before serving. I ate this with fragrant basmati rice (a rare, not-local treat...), yogurt raita and sauted collard greens and swiss chard.

Heat 1/2 gallon milk in a large stainless pot until nearly boiling. Add 1-2 T of vinegar (more if the curd fails to break) as the milk rises, turn off the heat and stir with a slotted spoon until curds rise to the surface. Drain in a colander lined with cheesecloth (save the whey for ricotta if you like!) Toss the curds gently to shake out the whey and sprinkle lightly with salt. Gather the cheesecloth around the curds and form into a flattish ball. Press with a heavy-ish object (I used my full yogurt container) for a few minutes, or longer, depending on how hard you want your curds.

Note: I highly recommend checking out an Indian grocer for spices mixes. They are unbelievably flavorful and include things like ground green cardamom, mango powder, aesofetida, etc, that truly are the essence of deliciousness in Indian cooking. Failing access to an Indian grocer simply add powdered cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt and pepper to taste (and miss out on something special). You can also add microscopic amounts of nutmeg, cloves, mace and star anise, which would be in this spice mix. But don't overdo it!!! Do not, EVER, buy the generic "curry" powder in the grocery store. The spices will be bitter and old (like me someday!) and will not have any of the lovely "sour" and "sweet" notes of proper spice mixes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pro-Life Wheat-Free Ricotta Tart

So, I was just encouraging y'all to get wheat out of your diet, and here's a a little yummy something to help you do it. My mom has celiac sprue, which is an intolerance to wheat gluten, so I think about cooking wheat-free a lot for other reasons. As it turns out, celiac is an auto-immune disease, which seems to run in our family. Her sister also has celiac, and I'm Type 1 diabetic, which is also an auto-immune malfunction of the endocrine system. No doubt, our common flaky immune system was caused by exposure at critical times in our collective development to endocrine disrupting chemicals, which were just beginning to be sprayed liberally in Iowa at the time my mom and her sister were born, and continued to intensify all over the Midwest as was I conceived and born in North Dakota. Read more about pesticides as endocrine disruptors here: Also, see Sandra Steingraber's books: Living Downstream and Having Faith ( for an explanation of the persistence of agricultural chemicals in the environment and their effects on fetuses. You can't be pro-life and pro-agricultural chemicals, folks. Pick one or the other, cuz the effect is pretty much the same. Or worse.

I digress.

So, my last local food adventure involved cheese making, and happily this one does too! I ripped this recipe off from Stonewall Kitchen Harvest (my favorite cookbook), but I added a few twists, like making my own ricotta. I have always wanted to make this recipe, but always loathed buying the dead ricotta in its plastic coffin in the grocery store. Thanks to cheese rebel R___, I have been inspired to make my own. So the basic recipe involves making a crust with thinly sliced high-starch potatoes. The highest starch potatoes are russets, but if you're a potato nerd like me, you can also use medium starch Kennebecs or my personal favorite, German Butterballs. I used Rose-Golds (low-med starch) because that's all I had, and it turned out great. Superlative, even. The filling of the tart is a mixture of garlic, greens, eggs and ricotta cheese. This recipe is great for making now when the winter potatoes are almost done and there are lots of spring greens in the garden and at the market (er, sorry folks, there are lots of spring greens in Georgia--the rest of yas will just have to wait. Or better yet, come visit.)

I made ricotta out of a certain illegal substance, that shockingly, was still fresh and sweet smelling in my fridge in spite of being a week away from the cow and horrors, not p______. The news coverage on TV in Atlanta regarding the raw m___ seizure in Athens highlighted the deleterious side effects of drinking said substance. Their bulleted list included "spontaneous abortion," which is bogus political speech alluding to the fact that some bacteria present in ALL milk can cause an infection, which, like all bacterial infections, might be bad for a fetus's chances of survival. I am pretty sure that the right-wing boneheads who put that segment together actually meant "miscarriage" but why waste a political opportunity? I certainly don't. I wish there was a warning label on conventionally produced foods that would give y'all a politically loaded headsup about what you were consuming and the consequences of that action.

The production of this food has been proven to cause spontaneous abortions in women all over the world, and has the potential to cause serious endocrine disruption, including sterility in men, cancer and birth defects.

I think we could just stop with causing sterility in men. That might get the attention of some of the overwhelmingly male decision-makers in our food system. Maybe. They make enough money to buy all organic food, and why should they care about whether the Colombian banana picker or Mexican migrant worker can have kids or not? Surely the poison pushers at Monsanto know what this does to our bodies? They pay the EPA and FDA to look the other way, in the form of fast-tracking approval of pesticides, after all.

I digress.

So I made ricotta using whole milk and vinegar--just like when I make paneer, and sadly it turned out a little bit more like paneer than ricotta. But, it was still tasty. I think the milk, being a little less than fresh, needed less "starter" than I used, and we all know how much raw m____ likes to be cheese! So, it was a little lumpy but fresh and delicious. See this site for more information than you'll probably ever need to know about making ricotta.
Enjoy--this guy loves him some curd.

Instead of swiss chard, which Stonewall Kitchen calls for, I used spinach and arugula, cuz that's what I had. I should also mention that this took just under an hour to make, which included preparing the ricotta and picking and washing the greens while the milk heated. I also didn't have parmesan cheese, which the recipe called for but subbed some local feta instead. Cooking with what you have is sort of an important basic principle of eating locally. You can't always get russets, but that doesn't actually matter. What matters is that you didn't contribute to destroying someone's ability to have children or their ability to eat certain foods or their ability to carry a child to term. You do not have a right to eat whatever you want when that right interferes with someone else's basic human rights. In the over-privileged hemispheres of the world, we certainly do have the privilege of eating whatever we want, and we should never forget that it comes at the cost of human life everywhere, even and especially those that are yet to live.

So, do something pro-life. Make your own ricotta. Buy some local potatoes. Enjoy.

Pro-Life, Wheat-Free Ricotta Tart (makes 1 tart in a 7 X 9 inch-ish pan)

1 1/2 pounds greens (arugula, spinach, swiss chard)
1/4 + 2 T butter, melted (make your own...see earlier blog post)
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 large potatoes (high starch preferred, but will work with just about anything), unpeeled, and scrubbed
3 tsp chopped fresh thyme, oregano, rosemary (I also used dried thyme...use what you have)
1 cup feta cheese (or cheddar, or mozzarella or whatever you have)
2 large eggs
2 cups ricotta cheese (start this right before the rest, it takes about 10-15 minutes)
Salt and pepper to taste

Clean, trim and chop the greens. Heat 2 T of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add half the garlic and half the greens. Add more garlic and greens as they cook down. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain off any excess liquid.

Slice the potatoes very thinly and of uniform thickness. Create a thin layer of potato slices on the bottom of your pan and overlap them slightly to make a crust. Slide a few up the sides to make an edge. Drizzle the remaining melted butter over the crust. Sprinkle salt, pepper, herbs of choice and cheese of choice over potatoes of choice and/or availability, as the case may be.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl, add the ricotta, more herbs and cheese of choice, salt and pepper. Gently add the greens and mix well. Spread the cheese-greens mixture over the potato slices and press lightly.

Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 and bake for another 10 minutes. The potato crust should be brown and crisp and the filling should be firm to the touch. Let cool about five minutes before cutting into wedges. Enjoy with a green salad or braised carrots. Add a frozen fruit-yogurt-honey dessert to finish it off!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hot Salad

Today, I wanted a light lunch, but was feeling chilly. I took my favorite salad fixings (spinach, chard, feta, pecans and carrots) and sauteed them with garlic and salt. Turned out great!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

So-Called 30 Minute Mozzarella

I promised y'all that the next time I posted something about pizza that it would have homemade cheese involved. With a little help from my friends that is now being delivered. The objective was to get some creamy contraband from across state lines and try out Ricki Carroll's 30 minute mozzarella recipe. I'm not sure we actually believed mozz could happen in 30 minutes, but what was going to be a little afternoon road trip and fun in the kitchen turned into a 12 hour celebration of life, food and chance. Like all things local, relationships, knowledge and in this case, a little daring, were key to making this happen.

Best girlfriend R__* spurred this project on by attending and being, um, rather inspired, by a cheesemaking session at the recent Georgia Organics conference held in Athens. Armed with veg and non-veg rennet and "starter" we converged at an undisclosed location and proceeded to make a certain illegal purchase. The purchase of the illegal substance was pretty anti-climactic, and sort of underscores the ridiculousness of legislation around unpasteurized m___. What could be more uncontroversial and normal than visiting a farm and taking home a substance frequently described as the world's most perfect food? As I have pointed out before, this was a regular feature of my childhood and I'm still here to talk about it. It is ludicrous to imagine that it might have been more legal to transport wine (another heavily regulated perfect food) across state lines.

On the way home I noticed a man leave a gas station not more than a few miles from the farm we visited. He was carrying a gallon of milk. I mused for a moment on the thousands of miles, the countless gallons of petroleum and uncountable tons of carbon dioxide that were racked up, used up forever and released into the atmosphere in the supply chain for that particular gallon of milk. That customer has the option, but probably not the knowledge about the option, a few miles away to purchase a gallon of milk that has a supply chain of approximately five feet. Why can't we have more of this?

I think cheese, actually, is the world's most perfect food, and over the course of the day, I realized another reason why raw m__ is so scary to the dairy industry. That's because raw m___ WANTS to be cheese. Really really really badly. The ease of which cheese is produced from raw m___ should strike fear in the hearts of all dairy processors and they should immediately run to their state legislator and demand further restrictions on the rights of citizen eaters to purchase and process whatever life giving substance they want. The should also, while they are there, request further rights and privileges to support the waging of war in the name of cheap energy, to create permanent climatic destruction and to drive trucks around the planet mindlessly and purposelessly. All for the sake of a greasy buck. That's dumb. (Utah Philips, my favorite anarchist, said that, and I'm proud to repeat it).

After enjoying a lovely meal at a local restaurant we took a little break to enjoy the gorgeous weather and reconvened for some seriously subversive and illegal activities later in the evening. The basic process of making cheese is to add a starter, which is anything that will "sour" the milk and can include vinegar, citric acid or buttermilk. Then add rennet, which is a coagulant derived from the intestines of very young cows... (Vegetarians, if you don't want to think about that too much, you should try the very easy process of making your own cheese out of veg rennet. We did!) The next steps involve varying forms of cutting, kneading, heating, salting, etc, etc, to create the kind of cheese you ultimately desire. Our mozz required nuking the curds in a microwave, and kneading and stretching the resulting ball of fragrant yumminess.

Our cheese turned out delicious, but a little bit squeaky and rubbery and not exactly solid. It was ultimately fantastic melted on spinach, sun-dried tomato and garlic pizza which we enjoyed around 10pm with several glasses of wine. But that's not the most important part. The important part was that we were using recipes designed for pasteurized milk, and you all know we were using something else!!! Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Timing is everything in making different kinds of cheeses, and when we added the starter, our milk instantly curdled. That should have happened when we heated it... But we pressed on and ended up with really gigantic curds that we then proceeded to process to a rubbery, squeaky mass. We concluded, perhaps, smugly (?) that maybe raw m___ doesn't actually need all that processing to make really nice cheese...? Or maybe we just don't know what we're doing? Maybe both.

We can't wait to experiment and we'll let you know how that goes too! That is if we aren't arrested the next time we smuggle the good stuff across state lines! Wish us luck!

*all names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kale and Sweet Potatoes

I worked at Athens Locally Grown last Thursday for the first time since last summer when I was "laid off". For one reason or another, I was sent home with armfuls of vegetables. Now, some of my nearest and dearest know about my secret bachelorette habit of eating popcorn and drinking beer when I should be eating kale and sweet potatoes. I know, I know. But I come by it honestly...just ask my dad.

In my mind, the whole point of cooking and eating is sharing. So, cooking a lovely meal for myself and sharing it with approximately no one makes me feel more lonely than I already was feeling before I started cooking and made a mess of the kitchen. Guess who is going to clean that up? At least popcorn is something I can share with my hound dog--Ksanti--who finds the project of catching flying popcorn endlessly interesting.

To remedy this sad state of affairs, I've been having friends over for dinner once or twice each week. So when I brought home cauliflower, potatoes, spinach, carrots, collards, cream, milk, etc, etc, I knew I needed to cook for somebody(s), or all this loveliness was going to go to waste. Looking at a gallon of milk I couldn't dream of drinking by myself and two adorably little and lacy heads of cauliflower, I couldn't help but think of paneer makhani (fresh cheese in tomato cream sauce) and aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower). Best girlfriends, Regan and Erin, were more than happy to assist with dispatching the yumminess, and even volunteered to sample my ever-evolving attempts at making paratha (stuffed Indian flatbreads).

I am always impressed with how Indian cuisine lends itself to the produce available here, and everywhere but at the Arctic Circle, really. Regan pointed out that Indian cuisine just does a good job of working with vegetables, which is a really good point. Other cuisines tend to have wheat or other grains as an essential base. Italian has its wheat, Mexican its corn and Thai its rice. Indian food obviously has rice and wheat breads as an essential part of the plate, and you probably won't go anywhere in India without seeing one or both on a thali (platter of three or more main dishes complete with breads, dessert, salad and condiments, served family style).

Having said that, you could eat a plate of potato subji (vegetable dish), paneer (cheese) or gosht (meat) masala, sauteed greens and dahi (yogurt) and never miss the grains. Which is what I just did. And it was delicious. As a diabetic, I've never been too worried about whether I was eating wheat or potatoes--it's all carbs to me. I think this is an important strategy for local eaters to adopt. It's next to impossible (as I've railed about before) to get grains in local markets. Forget local, organic grains grown by small-scale farmers. Unless you're Amish (who do this for their communities) you won't be able to produce a large enough volume of grains to make it anywhere near affordable for people to buy...I think the buying and selling of it is actually the problem here...but I digress.

In an otherwise fiber rich diet (read, a base of fresh fruits and vegetables) the complex carbohydrates from grains aren't really that necessary. Regan related some statistics about vegetable consumption in the United States, which are actually too horrifying to repeat. Suffice it to say that the CDC is concerned enough about this to launch a whole new campaign of research and outreach around vegetable consumption as disease prevention. When I expressed some concern about my popcorn habit and my long term health, she said in reference to the meal I had cooked for her last week, "You have kale and sweet potatoes in your life. You're fine". Whew.

So, just a little bit of advice and encouragement--support your local farmers and don't worry about what you might be missing by not eating grains. They are overrated anyway, as Marion Nestle points out in her book, Food Politics. The FDA/USDA tells us what to eat with their cute little pyramid according to who pays them the most money. I guess if I had that kind of money, I would try to pay the government to tell you to eat local. But I don't. I just have this blog, so thanks for reading and get some kale and sweet potatoes in your life. You'll be fine.