Making Yogurt – I met with success

Making homemade yogurt for me has never been easy.   Actually it has been quite hard.  I have given more yogurt to the chickens that I care to admit because my yogurt has never  set up.  I am once again trying a foray into yogurt making because I found a yogurt maker in the clearance corner at the local department store for less than $10, and my grocery store yogurt has gone up to over $8  container. I have become convinced that my problem is the long-term holding temp that I don’t think I am achieving.   I am an experienced home cook who has no problems with yeast breads and complicated candies so it seemed that this holding temperature was my problem.  I read and “chatted” with internet folks about their yogurt making and no matter what people suggested I could not get a yogurt out of my efforts.

I have never been much of yogurt person until I  found a commercial yogurt that had two ingredients milk and cultures, nothing else.  On top of that most commercial yogurt had not only milk and cultures but also thickeners, stabilizers and shelf-life extenders which I am not in favor of.   It was revolutionary for me when I found this two-ingredient yogurt because I liked it plain, no sweetener or  fruit necessary.   I had tried every brand, every style under the sun over the years  without success of turning me into a yogurt eater.   Yogurt was a necessary evil, not a good food I liked.  It was sort of like a milk version of Jello, with a spoonful of crappy jam in the bottom.  Yuck!

My first batch of yogurt came out just perfect.   I have been eating it all week on my homemade granola.  It was nice and thick, and I ate it before we had a chance to strain some of it to make  Greek style.

Seven jars of wonder

Seven jars of wonder

Now I have my second batch in the maker again.  I am also checking out the internet learning about  the different cultures out there I may wish to try in the future.   Cultures affect the thickening and the taste of your yogurt (tart vs. naturally sweet and things in between).  I am setting the timer for a little longer this time as well to see how that impacts the tartness of it as I am thinking of straining some of this week’s yogurt that we will use in lieu of sour cream.

As you can see it set up nicely.

As you can see it set up nicely.

A couple of things that about the electric yogurt machine in case you come across a deal like mine and decide to give yogurt making a whirl. The little glass jars do have the little line in the bottom where the sides and bottom meet and they are as hard to clean as anyone who has written any  review you might see has suggested.   I already had a bottle brush and use it immediately upon emptying the jar.    Long-term you will probably need a second set of jars, since you need to make your next batch within seven days, and I had one more left in the refrigerator when I started this batch that I need to transfer it out of to use again.    A second set of jars is more twice what I paid for the maker so am going to look at some of the glass containers I have around the house and see what I might come up with as I am only short a bottle or two.

My yogurt on my granola.  Mornings can't start out much better than this.

My yogurt on my granola. Mornings can’t start out much better than this.

Furlough: Dinners from the Freezer

One of my favorite oldies!

We are now in our third week of government furlough.    It has been a time for us to appreciate all that we have in our pantry and freezer.   We are lucky to have such a well stocked larder.   The challenge is we like to cook fresh and ethnic foods.    It means we often pull things from our stores and add things from the grocery to allow us to make exactly what we want.    We are now having to tap into out our creative side of making menus without going to the grocery to get items.  We are challenging ourselves to make do with what we have at home.   This generally means we are eating more traditional 50’s American menus.   I have been tapping into my old cookbooks.  It is interesting to explore some of the old favorites and discover some new ones.   One of the biggest challenges is to cut recipes down to size for just the two of us, because we are not big on leftovers, but this lack of a paycheck is reminding us to be more thrifty than normal.

Recently we had half a ham which should have been one family Sunday dinner.   Instead it was a traditional ham dinner, the next night we had scalloped potatoes and ham, followed by Senate Navy bean soup, lastly it made a great Indian lentil soup (dal).   There is a little ham left and we will be making a Quiche to finish it off next.    We were quite pleased with how we succeeded in making so much from that single piece of meat.    It did serve to remind us though that good menu planning is no accident.   It takes time and forethought to ensure that you are successful with menu planning.

Though there is an ongoing economic price to pay for us being a pawn in the government, it has reaffirmed that there is a reason we are frugal, and put food by.   We again thank our parents for teaching us to get by with what we have and plan for rainy days.   We have been reminded that we are survivors, because that is a choice we can make when it seems like there are no choices for us.   It has made us stronger as a couple because we are in this challenge together, stronger than we would be separately.

Thawing Turkey in the Refrigerator

I put a frozen turkey in my refrigerator on Sunday and on Friday it was still frozen.    Everyone now days recommends that you thaw turkeys out in the refrigerator.   Based on the weight the consensus was that it should have been thawed by Tuesday.   Let me assure you on Friday it was still frozen.   Agh!   I planned to put in the electric roaster Friday at noon and serve it for dinner that night to guest.  I was wasting gallons of water trying to thaw it out in the kitchen sink in time.

All my life growing up and most of my adult life turkey was thawed out on the kitchen counter.   I am not sure what caused a changed and made the counter method no longer acceptable.   I never remember anyone betting sick from Thanksgiving turkey or the stuffing inside it.  We practiced good clean kitchen technique and food handling.   It isn’t to say sickness was not possible,  but we were careful and smart and it worked for us.

Whoever everyone is that recommends that refrigerator method, I have tried it now a couple of times and can tell you it isn’t working for me.   I am going back to the kitchen counter and lots of common sense for my next turkey dinner.

Expand Your Palate – Expand Your World

An icon of the 60’s family dinner.

I grew up in America’s breadbasket, and most of what I ate in my formative years  could be defined as a  classic white Wonder bread world.    Illinois was prime farmland, and I grew up in the middle of it.   My family ate the things that were grown in the our garden.  Our garden was big and contained largely common things like corn,tomatoes, and beans.   It also contain a few not so common things at the time such as …kale…cauliflower…beets.     My parents bought their pork and beef from the local meat lockers.   It allowed our family to have extravagances like steak.   But we also ate some not common things because nothing was wasted, such as  the heart, liver and things like pudding meat.  (I am not sure today what pudding meat was even was made up of, and I probably don’t want to know.)

My family also were hunter-gathers.  We ate wild asparagus that we cut from along fence rows, my dad remember the location year to year from his time driving the milk truck.   I never knew morel mushrooms were a delicacy.   We used to go out and bring home empty feed sacks full each spring.    My mom would freeze them and put them on pot roast in the winter.  (That  seems almost obscene knowing what they sell for today).   The men in the family  hunted, as a result we ate all sorts of small game.   Our family fished and occasionally ran bank poles.  It meant we ate blue gills, sunnies, bullheads, catfish and turtle that came from the local rivers, creeks and backwaters.

My mom was a town girl, but here wasn’t a thing that she would not try to make.   It was the days before the internet so she was at the mercy of friends, family, cookbooks and the recipes reported in the newspaper. If something bombed she would look for a new recipe for the next time.  Some of them years later as an adult I  confess they were not anything I would want to repeat.  (No disrespect intend Mother).

What this did do, was set me up so that as an adult I would have an open mind about trying new foods.  Eating my mother’s forays into the less than common cuts of meat and veggies, I learned that I may not like someone one or two ways, but there were just as likely five or six ways to prepare it that were worthy of repeating often.  It served me well when I moved to the city.  In the city,   I was always wanting to try new ethnic restaurants.   I did not want eat just at Italian, Chinese and Mexican restaurants. Even in the more common cuisines,  I did not want an Americanized menu.     I ate food from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Greece, Turkey,  Morocco, Viet Nam, India and other countries I had never heard of.   I often  had to go home and look up to see where many of the countries were on a map.   I wanted to learn more about the culture of country where the food I was eating came from.    I quickly learned like the US there were many regional flavors within a country, so eating at different restaurants yielded different menus.

I may never travel the world, but I have gotten to experience the cuisines of the world through my palate.   It will never be the same as going to these countries, but I have used it as an opportunity to travel in my mind.   Expanding my palate has expanded my world.

How Much Can You Squeeze Into a Day?

This weekend was supposed to be a gastronomical get away with friends.  We had planned an long leisure ethnic tapas style dinner, followed by walks to a highly recommended ice cream shop and a night cap or two before spending the night at a hotel.   The dog has reservations at his favorite dog sitter who has a doggie door, that he just can’t get enough of.   Work circumstances for Mr. Ranger Sir have gotten crazy.   He  has been gone all week and will not be home next week.    He squeezed a single day off  Saturday and came home for a little R&R.  There was no way our out-of-town rendezvous was going to happen.

He came with plans for doing  dirty laundry and wanted nothing more than to sleep in his own bed for hours.    Unfortunately for him the birds we had not  butchered because of nasty weather were getting wild.  They were starting to fight.   They were picking at everyone’s feathers and some of them were start to have naked areas.   Yep with the precious single day at home we spent three hours of it butchering 11 chickens.   We started at the crack of dawn and got started before the predicted record highs for Montana became a reality.    We got rid about half  our flock.   Gone are all our roosters and the broody girls.  We have 12 birds left, one from the 2011 flock, four from the 2012 flock and the other seven are what is left of this year’s chick order.   We will have to butcher one more time before the snow flies and get rid of about half of what is left, but that is for another day.

Next came laundry, laundry and more laundry.   I can’t say a bad word about this because Mr. Ranger Sir is sure he does laundry better than I can.   After 35 years with this man, I just get out of the way and let him do it.

Then we cleaned up the coop.   We laid in fresh straw, cleaned containers, topped off food and reminded ourselves about why we don’t do this many birds.   The remaining flock is so much more settled and our role to keep they healthy, clean and fed just got easier.

We cleaned up and headed to town.    Lucky for us going to town included a stop at the dump, because the butchering  We decided we deserved a two hour time out, and took in a movie.  It was cool, mindless and fun.    Next it was off the K-mart to pick up a few supplies and then the grocery to find food to stock my husbands pantry next week in while on assignment.

Together we cooked up a couple of pork chops with a most amazing mango pepper sauce, along with a salad.     It was nice to sit at the table and try and catch up with all that had gone on, and try to make plans for the up coming week and beyond.

The last thing of the night, Mr. Ranger Sir packed up his bags with clean clothes, groceries, renewed supplies.

It wasn’t the day either of us had planned but it was full of what need to be done.  It is amazing what you can accomplish if time is short.   You can squeeze so much in and even unexpectedly have a little fun too.

A Small Batch of Jam

plum-jamI had a collection of plums I had received as part of my last Bountiful Basket.   They were not yet ripe so I let them set on the counter top a few days and then threw them in the refrigerator.   Out of sight, out of mind.   Today I decided that if I could find a recipe that I could adjust for my very tiny batch of plums I was going to make them into jam.   I got out my old canning books and  it was as I remembered  I would need a bushel, or at least a peck of plums for any of those tried and true recipes from Ball or Kerr.   So I headed to where we all go now the internet.   I found my answer, an 100% scalable recipe for my plums.

Plum Jam Recipe

1:1 ratio, chopped plums to sugar.   Cook 5 minutes and can.

Ok it wasn’t that simple.  I did not expect it to be that easy.   I had to cook it longer than 5 minutes to get  my sheeting off the spoon test to work.  I suspected such would be true at my altitude.   No biggie.   I then decided that I would finish my 3 half-pints off in a water bath since things never get as hot as they need to  when water boils at 198 degrees.   New problem.   I no longer had my hot water canner.   I had given it away after living in Montana for 5 years and not using it.  I threw a cotton dish cloth in the bottom of a tall soup pot, brought my water to a boil and put my precious cargo in.   Twenty minutes latter I pulled my precious cargo out.

It was a wonderful flashback moment of the joys of when I canned all the seasons bounty.

Do Not Rinse Your Chicken

Is your raw chicken full of nasty bacteria?

Is your raw chicken full of nasty bacteria?

WHAT?!?!?!?

This is a direct quote from the FDA website.

“Do not rinse raw meat and poultry before cooking. “Washing these foods makes it more likely for bacteria to spread to areas around the sink and countertops,” 

I heard this the other day and thought no way.   It must be an urban or internet legend.   The “trust no one” cynic in me went straight to the FDA page and found out yep they did sure say this.    The thoughts that race through my mind when I read this are somewhat frightening.

  • In this era of we need smaller government we have gutted our food inspection process.   We have so few government inspectors that they can no longer do the job the public assumes they are doing.   Instead we are depending on the meat industry to police themselves.    Think about all the food-borne illness that comes from meat claimed to be USDA Inspected.   Asking a meat packer to inspect the meat they are processing is like asking a fox to guard a hen house.   Not happening.  The bottom line at the meat packing house is profit.
  • The fact such a broad statement is made is makes me think that most of our meat is more likely than not to be a carrier of some kind of bacteria that could cause illness.   So odds the  your meat carries bacteria, and the meat processor and the USDA are depending on you to fully cook the meat without poking the surface to prevent illness.   FYI – You supposed are too turn your steak with a tongs not a fork!  That fork tine might take bacteria to the inside of your medium steak and make you sick.   Yuck!
  • The inside of a whole chicken has all sorts of nasties left inside them.  I am not talking the giblet bag folks, but that junk attached inside the chest cavity.   Commercial processing does a darn crummy job of finishing a chicken.   I am always amazed at how much ‘guts’ are left inside whenever I see a store bought chicken.   As someone who processes her own chickens I can tell you it takes just a few seconds with a hose to get the last of  that connective and organ tissue caught there inside the bird out.   I always wonder why they leave something ripe to grow things behind, but they do.   It seems to me a prime bacteria growing place, that 30 seconds of spraying with water could get rid of. Gross, double gross!
  •  Look at your packing and you will almost find this universally, “Water added for processing.”  Do you know what this means?   Your store bought chicken is first of all cooled in a communal dunk tank, and from the sounds of it with their innards intact.   When I am done fully dressing my chickens, I admit I throw them in a cold water bath, but only until I am done with the batch I am butchering.   Then they are taken out and dry aged in the refrigerator.     Based on personal experience I don’t get how they can absorb so much water unless left a long time in that communal water.  What a wonderful place to spread bacteria, and get absorbed in to the meat/muscle tissue of the bird.   Also because chicken is sold by the pound what a great way to inflate the price!   Here is the explanation from the FDA page on this water added statement.

    “Poultry is not injected with water, but some water is absorbed during cooling in a “chill-tank,” a large vat of cold, moving water. The chill-tank lowers the temperature of the slaughtered birds and their giblets (hearts, livers, gizzards, etc). During this water chilling process, turkeys and chickens will absorb some of the water, and this amount must be prominently declared on the label. It is not unusual for poultry to declare 8 to 12% retained water on the label.”

I know I have blogged on this before, but I do come back to this again because I think it is important for consumers to think about where their food comes from and how it is handled.   I am lucky because we are able and willing to raise and butcher our own chickens; we know the woman who raises our lamb,  know the rancher who raises our grass-fed beef, and lastly know Dan our butcher, who slaughters and cuts our meat just as we want it. At our house we are are willing to acknowledge and cook our meat based  the fact that they are different than commercially raised chickens and feedlot cattle and lamb.   Most folks don’t have these luxuries.    Many of  you have no choices on your meat; your store gives you no options; your budget does not allow you to be choosy.   What I hoping this blog will do is allow you to be aware that your food isn’t  guarantee to be safe just because it came from a store or has the USDA Inspected seal on it.   Ask your store if they can make some options available to you including dry aging of your chicken.  Seek out a relationship with a small farmer or person at your local farmer’s market.   Lastly treat the meat in your home with great care to prevent cross contamination.  There is no perfect situation and we all have to make choices regarding money and time, both of them in short supply.   Carry on and make the best choices you can for your dinner plate.