Monday, September 27, 2010

Cheese Making for Family Dinner

Cheese ranks high on a long list of culinary addictions.   Cambazola on flatbread, borsin on sliced apple, goat cheese and roasted beets... life is good.  Many years ago, when my husband and I were first married and our budget was tight as a drum, we celebrated Friday evenings with a fresh baguette, a $7 bottle of wine and an $8 wedge of cheese. If only for nostalgia sake, I had to take the homemade cheese and dairy workshop offered at Sur la Table.  After an afternoon of stirring warmed milk and separating curds and whey, I was shocked not only by how easy you can make homemade cheese but how superior the product is to what is available at the store.  So, with my tuffet set aside, I vowed to add cheese making to the weekly list of projects.  This week, I gave queso blanco a try as the family celebrated the completion of another week and the possibilities of the weekend at our Friday night family dinner.

Queso Blanco
Makes 8 to 10 ounces
One instruction stressed over and over during the cheese workshop was not to use ultra pasteurized milk.  Horizon Organic Milk is ultra-pasteurized, so my best grocery store option was Promised Land Milk. However, the ultimate choice for homemade cheese is local milk available at the farmer's market. Local milk will make the freshest cheese, support local agriculture and ultimately give you delicious queso blanco for under $5.  The inner hippie and the inner economist are in harmony. 

8 cups whole milk
3 to 4 TB fresh lemon juice.
  1. In a large heavy saucepan bring the milk to a boil over high heat, stirring almost constantly.  When the milk comes to a frothing boil reduce the heat to low and when the frothing subsides, stir in 3 TB lemon juice.  Continue stirring gently in one direction, until the milk curdles and the cheese separates from the whey. If after a minute the cheese has not fully formed and the whey is not a clear yellow-green color, add small amounts of the lemon juice and continue to stir until the cheese forms. 
  2. Remove the pan from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the cheesecloth-lined sieve.  Now pour the whey and the remaining smaller bits of cheese and bundle them together.  Twist gently to squeeze out as much whey as possible.  
  3. Wrap the cheese in the same cheesecloth to make a neatly shaped bundle.  At this point, you can leave the cheese on a board weighed down with a bowl of water or tie it to the faucet to drain into the sink.  I took the latter option and left it for about 20 minutes.  At this point I unwrapped the cheese cloth and patted it dry with paper towel.
When you taste the cheese at the point, it will not have a strong flavor.  You can add salt and pepper, however I mixed it with Pepper Jack cheese for enchiladas so we enjoyed it more for the gorgeous texture and fresh flavor.  It reminded me of a Mexican version of ricotta cheese in a good lasagna. 

Lolo's Margaritas:
I can't eat Mexican food without a good margarita.  This recipe was inspired by both Ina Garten's Real Margaritas and The Level Headed One's Low Calorie Margaritas.  Having spent many evenings with both, I offer my own version.  Note: all fruit juices are freshly squeezed.  

2 cups orange juice
1 cup lime juice
1 cup lemon juice
1 cup good quality silver tequila (I prefer Milagro to Patron Silver)
1 cup Orange Liqueur (I prefer Patron Citronage to Grand Marnier) 
1 cup ice cubes

Combine all ingredients in the blender.  Blend and enjoy... responsibly.  

You have your cheese and your cocktails; now its time to make a fantastic meal.  You can't have fresh cheese and a fresh cocktail paired with dinner from a can, so recruit some family help and try these outstanding recipes courtesy of Louis Lambert for Food & Wine magazine:  

Two Cheese Enchiladas
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for the baking dish
3 1/2 cups salsa roja (recipe below)
12 6-inch corn tortillas
2 cups queso blanco
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
3/4 cup minced onion
2 cups finely shredded green cabbage
2 plum tomatoes
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly oil a 9 X 13 inch glass or ceramic baking dish.  In a medium skillet, warm the 1/2 cup oil (I skipped this step and dipped my tortillas into the salsa roja rather than hot oil. I found then to be plenty pliable) In another medium skillet, warm 1/2 cup of the Salsa Roja and transfer to a plate, stacking the tortillas on top of each other.
  2. In a medium bowl, mix the queso blanco with the MOnterrey Jack. Set a tortilla on a work surface and spoon 1/4 cup of the cheese and about 1 TB of minced onion in the center.  Loosely roll up the tortilla like a cigar and set in the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining tortillas, cheese and onion.  Pour the remaining 3 cups of Salsa Roja over the rolled enchiladas and sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of cheese on top. 
  3. Bake the enchiladas for 25 minutes or until heated through and the sauce is bubbling.  Scatter the cabbage and tomatoes over the enchiladas and serve hot. 

Salsa Roja
8 large ancho chilies, stemmed and seeded
1 small dried red chile stemmed and most of the seeds discarded
3 plum tomatoes, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 TB light brown sugar
1 TB vegetable oil
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 TB cider vinegar
  1. In a medium saucepan, combine all of the ingredients except the cider vinegar and bring to a boil for 2 minutes.  Cover, remove from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Working in batches, puree the sauce in a blender.  Transfer to a bowl and stir in vinegar.

Try this for your next family dinner, or enjoy a date night at home.  You will not be disappointed.  Well, in the meal anyway.   

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pantry Raid

In my quest to stretch our monthly grocery budget, I have taken to a ritual pantry raid; a literal scouring of the pantry's contents in pursuit of undiscovered meal potential. This month's raid offered a plethora of dried beans.  What better way to kick off the beginning of fall than with some homemade soups?  One flip through my recipe collection, a few bags of fresh produce and I was ready to prepare three outstanding and inexpensive dishes.  The first two recipes are courtesy of the October issue of Food Network Magazine.  The last is a tried and true Ina Garten recipe that you may remember from party #49.  

Cranberry Bean Pasta Fagioli
One of my many culinary embarrassments includes my college-year love affair with the Olive Garden's Soup, Salad, and Breadstick.  To this day, I cannot serve Pasta Fagioli without a huge salad and buttery slices of garlic bread.  I do however skip the post-meal keg stand... even my nostalgia has its limits. 

Active: 45 minutes            Total: 2 hours 25 minutes

5 TB extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
5 cloves garlic, smashed
1 small onion
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes or more to taste
1 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 2-ounce piece of pancetta*
5 canned whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand* 
Kosher salt
3 pounds fresh cranberry beans in pods, shelled (or 1 cup dried cranberry beans soaked overnight. I used this option.)
2 bay leaves
1 piece parmesan cheese rind, plus 1/2 cup grated parmesan, and more for topping.
2 cups small pasta, such as shells or ditalini*
1 bunch kale, stems and ribs discarded, leaves chopped
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground pepper

  1. Heat 3 TB olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the garlic, onion, red pepper flakes, rosemary and pancetta, if using, and cook 2 minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes and cook 2 more minutes; season with salt. Add the beans, 3 quarts water, the bay leaves and parmesan rind. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the beans are tender, 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours.  (At this stage, I froze half of the soup and therefore used half of the pasta and kale.  I then added the Parmesan and salt and pepper to taste.)
  2. Uncover the pot and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.  Add the pasta and cook until aldente, about 8 minutes.  Add the kale and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender 5 to 6 more minutes. (This soup should be thick and creamy thin with water if necessary) 
  3. Remove the bay leaves, parmesan rind and pancetta.  Add the grated parmesan, parsley, the remaining 2 TB olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Top with more olive oil and parmesan. 
Note: I had a package of sliced pancetta on hand; I diced up these slices and left them in the soup.  I also used home canned tomatoes in place of the San Marzano, however my favorite substitute was the use of whole wheat pasta.  Cranberry beans have a nutty, almost chestnut-like flavor.  The whole wheat pasta complimented this flavor beautifully and added another nutritious edge to this bowl of goodness. 

Slow Cooker Squash Stew
This was a fantastic soup, however it did not fare well during the reheat process; I recommend making this without any plans for leftovers.  
Active: 35 minutes         Total: 35 (plus 8 hours in the slow cooker)
3 TB Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 TB Tomato Paste
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1.5 cups dried chickpeas, rinsed
1 pound butternut squash peeled and cut into large pieces
1 bunch swiss chard, leaves and stems separated and roughly chopped
1 piece of parmesan rind, plus grated parmesan for topping (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and golden brown, 4-5 minutes.  Stir in the tomato paste and red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute.  Stir in 1/2 cup water, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer the contents of the skillet to a 6 quart slow cooker.
  2. Add the chickpeas, squash, chard stems (not the leaves) the parmesan rind, if using, 2 teaspoons salt and 7 cups of water to the slow cooker.  Stir, then cover and cook on low for 8 hours.  
  3. Just before serving, lift the lid and stir in the chard leaves; cover and continue cooking 10 more minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, and stir to slightly break up the squash.  Discard the parmesan rind. Ladle into bowls and top with grated parmesan cheese.     

Rosemary White Bean Soup
Serves 6
Sometimes, a basic bowl of creamy soup is essential to good living.  This is just the soup for such occasion. 
1 pound white cannellini beans (I used great northern beans) soaked overnight
4 cups sliced yellow onions (3 onions)
1/4 cup good olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large branch fresh rosemary
2 quarts chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

  1.  In a large stockpot over low to medium heat, saute the onions with the olive oil until the onions are translucent, 10-15 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 3 more minutes.  Add the drained white beans, rosemary, chicken stock, and bay leaf.  Cover and bring to a boil, and simmer 30-40 minutes. 
  2. Remove rosemary branch and bay leaves and pass soup through the food mill (I used an immersion blender and coarsely pureed.) 
  3. Salt and pepper to taste and serve.
I served this soup with a beet and goat cheese salad.  It was perfect for dinner and even better served from our family thermoses the following afternoon.

Don't have beans in the pantry?  MSN money did report a 20% price increase... the good news is that they are still under a dollar a pound.  Need a budget friendly menu, but your pantry is bean free?  Post questions in the comment box; I'm sure there is something perfect for your family table. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Good Morning Sunshine...

Mornings are not popular in the Pierce household.  The art of getting four people up and out the door can be a chore; making these four non-morning people happy can be insurmountable.  In my attempt to give everyone a bit of morning love without actually having to speak to them, I decided to add homemade breakfasts to our routine.  I needed something portable that could be prepped in advance and relatively healthy.   I first offered muffins; after throwing away a third of the batch each week my morale was low.  We moved on to smoothies; cups left in the car on a 93 degree day do not offer a great aroma in the afternoon.  Like a gift from above I received an email from Martha with a presentation on quick breads.  We have a winner!  These are easy to bake and even easier to transport.  They are also a great way to sneak seasonal fruits and veggies into the morning meals.  This week we enjoyed Strawberry Bread.  Slather a slice of this with cream cheese, pour yourself a go-cup of coffee and morning seems a little less hellish.  

Strawberry Bread
Prep: 10 minutes        Total: 1 Hour 10 minutes
Serves: 8

5 Tablespoons unsalted butter softened
1 pint strawberries, rinsed, hulled, quartered and mashed with a fork
1 3/4 cups AP flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter an 8-by-4 inch loaf pan.  In a small saucepan, bring strawberries to a boil over medium heat.  Cook stirring 1 minute.  Set aside (Note: I failed to cook while stirring on my first attempt of this bread and had a runny mess on my hand.  This step is critical)
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, baking powder and salt; set aside.  With an electric mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and eggs in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy.  Add flour mixture alternately with 1/3 cup water, beginning and ending with flour.  Fold in reserved strawberries.
  3. Scrape batter into prepared pan, smoothing top.  Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour (tent with foil after 45 minutes if top is getting too dark). Cool in pan 10 minutes.  Run a knife around the edges; invert onto a rack.  Reinvert; cool completely. 
I always bake a quick bread on Sunday evening.  Not only does it end the weekend with the beautiful smell of freshly baked goods, but I go to bed knowing that breakfast is already served! 

Monday, September 6, 2010


I could start this post describing the prep for party #52; running through Party City with my mother and 3 year old, the Italian Cheesecake that baked onto the oven floor, greeting my first few guests in a towel since I told them the wrong start time....  but I would rather go right to the good stuff. 
The final party began in the most appropriate manner; a dear friend popped open a fantastic bottle of champagne and made a toast.  As guests continued to arrive I was showered with wine, flowers, and cards.   After grazing on antipasto and focaccia and drinking plenty of white wine we assigned bocce partners and set up the dinner buffet.  As the husband coached our white clothed friends on the Italian art of kissing balls, I piled pasta and salad into large serving dishes and announced ‘dinner is served.’

While some guests devoured bowls of spaghetti bolognese and others made lewd comments concerning the word ‘ball’ the evening progressed in a beautiful fashion.  People wandered about with pasta in one hand, wine in the other.  It was casual, comforting; everything I always wanted my food to be.  At dessert time, biscotti made it to the table, however the Italian Cheesecake was replaced with chocolate dipped strawberries and a batch of snickerdoodles. We ate, we laughed and soon, it was time to say goodbye. 
A year ago I envisioned the last party as a Gatsby caliber soiree (minus the vehicular manslaughter).  It wasn’t.  It was a house filled with the friends I have grown to love, an obscure lawn sport and my own family comfort food.  Perhaps on accident, but the final party encompassed why I love to cook; food brings people together.  It doesn’t have to be hip nor glamourous, it just has to be good.  I end this project thinking that while I considered this a food and wine blog, it was more a relationship diary.   Each week it chronicled interactions with friends as we enjoyed a meal.  Some friends were here and gone and some were here through the end.  This weekend, a friend of the family described entertaining as a time to eat, drink and celebrate life. What better reason to celebrate. 

The Party In Numbers:
Parties Completed: 52
Weeks Before Deadline: 0
Bottles Consumed: 12
Justified Purchases: All things Italian 
What to do now that the project is over?  Follow me this year as I learn new cuisines, share some recipes, and host even more parties.  Grab your corkscrew and hunker down.... We have a lot more life to celebrate.