Thursday, April 29

Make your own yogurt

It's not news that yogurt can easily be made at home, but truth be told, what you usally get out of your average home rig just isn't that delicious. It can be watery, overly sour, and often resembles silken tofu with soft curds and a gelatinous texture. To achieve homemade yogurt that's both creamy and perfectly sour, there are few extra steps, but well worth the trouble.

Yogurt isn't complicated
Before we get to fixing broken homemade yogurt, however, here's a brief primer. Yogurt is simply milk that's been fermented using particular types of bacteria that create lactic acid. You can get this right bacteria using commercial yogurt as a starter, or by buying it in powder packets, like yeast.

Either way, once released into the wilds of your fresh milk, this lactic acid-producing bacteria multiplies, consuming the milk's natural sugar for food and adding, among other flavors, sourness. Meantime, the acid produced curdles the milk, creating the distinctive firmness and thick texture we cherish and expect. Curdling happens when milk proteins (casein) begin to unravel into strands and then tangle up, creating a mesh that traps water and fat (hence, thickness). In the process, some water also gets squeezed out of the curd, and that's why you often see whey separating out from yogurt.

For extra firmness
Along with casein, you can also enlist another milk protein to thicken your yogurt. Whey protein goes unscathed in the lactic acid bath that curdles casein, but by scalding your milk before fermentation at 185° for a period of 30 minutes, the whey protein gets cooked, unravelling it and reinforcing the final texture. You may have heard that scalding milk is necessary to kill stray bacteria or to deactivate enzymes that can interfere with fermentation, but in commercially available milk that's already pasteurized, these reasons no longer apply (if you're using raw milk, by all means scald for protection as well as texture!)

Making the yogurt
Once your milk is scalded, reduce the temperate to 70° by placing your pan into an ice bath (be sure you don't get any water or ice into the milk). Take temperature measurements! If you add bacteria to overly warm milk, it will die. And if your milk is too cold, you may be adding hours to the final fermentation time. Once the milk hits room temp, put it into a clean, airtight container, add the starter, blend it in fully, and find a warm spot where the whole thing can ferment undisturbed.

To achieve an even temperature throughout the process, I use the Yogourmet yogurt maker. I have friends who use the oven light or electric blankets for temperature control, and those methods can work, but I found the minimal investment in this simple piece of equipment to be worth it in terms of consistency and mess control.

After the milk has fully fermented (I leave mine overnight and then some, about 12-14 hours) I then take two extra, quick steps that add firmness and creaminess that really make this yogurt worth the work. If you've already gone to all the trouble of scalding and cooling your milk, this part is nothing!

First, I place pour the warm yogurt into a chinois and let it drain until about two cups of whey liquid separate out. Next, I take the strained yogurt and subject it to an immersion blender. This breaks up the curds and creates a smooth, runny texture that will appear ruined. Don't worry, once it has a chance settle and cool down, the texture will snap back. While still warm, I pour the now-runny liquid into glass containers and refrigerate it. After about six hours, I've got perfectly smooth and nicely thickened homemade yogurt that's somewhere between regular yogurt and greek style.

The payoff on making your own yogurt, as well as being fun, is multifold: the cost is about one third to one half of what it costs to buy, it tastes better, and you can be sure you're getting all of the probiotic cultures you want without any unwanted additives. After you make it a couple of times yourself, buying a plastic tub at the store won't seem quite as convenient or worth the money.

Saturday, April 24

Restaurant Style

Restaurant style can be unexpected and exciting, and comes and goes, like fashion. Remember black, white, and chandelier decor? Foams? In their time, very cool.

Ingredients, furnishings, and service details can delight guests hungry not just for good food, but also fresh luxury. Something as simple as offering to take your coat to orchestrating the kitchen and waitstaff to ensure plates are dropped in front of every guest at each table in perfect synchrony can make or break a restaurant experience.

Living here in San Francisco, we're lucky enough to have a competitive environment where restaurants are always reaching for fresh new ideas to inspire. Here are a few of them, some newer than others.

1. House filtered water, sparkly or still? Everyone wants to jump onto the green bandwagon, and so restaurants are not only serving organic local produce, but also taking high carbon-footprint beverages like bottled water off the menu in favor of filtering and carbonating their local tap water. 

2. Wine is off the table. After the traditional opening, the bottle is kept off the table and poured for you by staff as your glass drains. This one's a double-edged sword. When done well, it makes you feel like the center of the universe, but if the service isn't crisp, it can feel laggy and awkward when your glass is empty and you're wanting a nip.

3. The empty bread basket. Food-focused restaurants with upstart chefs don't want you to waste your palette on a loaf, they'd rather you enjoy an amuse bouche or a shot of some exotic cocktail concoction from the bar before settling in to consider the menu.

4. House-cured charcuterie, pickles, and jerkies. Look for house-cured meats and vegetables from salmon to salumi. Preserving meats and vegetables is labor and space intensive, but more and more restaurants are foraying into old-world preservation techniques.

Friday, September 11

Stop Thinking Outside the Box

We refer to cars we don't like the look of as boxy. We tell people to think outside the box when they're being dull and boring. Where's all this box negativity coming from? When it comes to wine, it's time to turn away from box hatred and embrace a greener package: the wine box. Foodbuzz kindly set me up with a box of Black Box Sauvignon Blanc, and I have to say the box makes perfect sense for this drinkable, basic, dry wine made from New Zealand grapes.

The secret to box wine isn't really the box, it's the mylar bladder. The liquid is packaged in an air-impermeable plastic bladder with a nozzle. The bag prevents spoilage because, as you drain it, it's deflating shape conforms to the contents perfectly without allowing air in. Bottles can't do that, unless you fill them up with glass pebbles... and we all know how much of a pain that can be.

That means you never have airspace, so you get much less spoilage, less waste, and pretty much always have something to serve stashed in your fridge. The wine doesn't last indefinitely, but it lasts long enough to make the lack of traditional packaging well worth it. The box holds 3 liters, so you get 4 bottles worth in one package. The packaging ensures that, once opened, the wine will survive under refrigeration for at least the length of time it would take you to get through 4 bottles, and at about $6.25 per bottle, that's hard to beat.

About the Beverage
The Black Box wine is a highly produced commercial affair, and as a result, doesn't have a lot of character. There's no terroir in the box, if you will, but no scary surprises either. It's perfectly drinkable, pleasant and refreshing on a hot afternoon. It has a lot of acid, some floral aromas, and no residual sugar that I could detect, making it an acceptable pairing with casual food or on it's own as the sun drops behind the horizon from a vantage point your local green space.

I'm not going to say that Black Box rivals the finest Sauvignon Blancs produced in Bordeaux, but it's not trying to, and the wine is certainly none the worse for being transported in an earth-friendly box as opposed to a traditionally packaged rival. In short, the quality of the wine is good enough to serve at a picnic lunch in the park or at your sunset backyard BBQ party without a moment's hesitation... it's floating far above Franzia in terms of quality, the other box wine. But would I serve it with sixty dollar per pound Dover sole flown in from the white cliffs? Not likely.

Wednesday, May 13

Mineral Oil's Mysteries

Mineral oil is one of those kitchen oddities: as far back as I can remember my mother has admonished me to "feed" my wooden cutting boards and utensils with the stuff. I'm not sure if it's feeding anything, but it is good at preserving, and just as importantly, sure makes them look good.

So, what is mineral oil anyway? Is it food? Is it natural? I wondered why it was called mineral oil; are there any minerals in it? And why people eat it, rub it on metal to prevent rust as well as all over their babies (baby oil is just scented mineral oil) to prevent diaper rash?

Firstly, It Comes from the Ground, But It's Not Natural
Mineral oil, contrary to it's nutritional-sounding name, is a by-product of petroleum distillation. And there are no minerals in it. The term mineral has been attached to this colorless, flavorless and non-reactive lube because of it's origins. Crude oil is found among subterranean rocks--you know--like minerals.

Mineral oil is definitely not food, but because it's non-reactive and indigestible, but it's also not inedible. Think of mineral oil as a hitchhiker that's just passing through the honky tonk town that is your body. It'll go to the saloon, end up in jail, but only stay there until morning. Or you can think of it as vaseline, but runny. They're actually very close from a chemical perspective, as is paraffin, which may be starring in a candle near you.

Fire Eaters, Sufferers of The Grip, and Sugar-Crazed Children
Mineral oil can't be absorbed by the body, so if your guts are bound up from drinking creek water or taking too much Vicadin, sucking down a tablespoon or two can help get things moving. And I mean that in the most literal of senses...think about an orange inside a nylon sock. Now think about an orange in a nylon sock but covered with mineral oil. See? That's what happens, roughly.

If you don't like the idea of ingesting a petroleum distillate, and I don't either mind you, you should also stop eating that nice shiny candy you just bought. Some soft gummy candies are made with mineral oil as an ingredient, and some are just coated with it to create a nice sheen. Bleh.

Fire eaters use mineral oil on their crazy batons because it burns at a low temperature, but simultaneously has a very high flashpoint, meaning it won't light unexpectedly by simply coming into contact with a flame like gas or kerosene would. And it's not poisonous, of course, so it's perfectly safe for fire eating. Whew!

What About Wood?
Yes, you should use mineral oil on wooden utensils. For one thing, it repels water, so it can help to seal out moisture and the bacteria that would enjoy bathing in it. By making your wooden stuff a bit more water repellent, they may also last a bit longer, too.

Finally, it brings out the natural grain in wood, which in turn makes you feel like you're more at one with nature as you microwave your teriyaki bowl and adjust your hearing aid so you can listen to Fred on YouTube more clearly. So yes, mineral oil deserves a place under the sink, just remember to take it out and apply to your wooden boards and utensils every few months.

Sunday, April 12

Indulge in a Classic Negroni with Special Red Vermouth

Nothing says summer sunset like a chilled, sophisticated and delicious Negroni cocktail. It's got a refreshing bitter bite, a citrus sparkle from fresh orange, and a heady blend of aromatics from the gin and sweet vermouth that never fails to refresh before dinner.

The Negroni is built on a platform of three complex flavor families, one of which is bitterness contributed by Campari. I'm a big fan of bitter liqueurs like Campari, Cinzano, and Cynar. Bitter liqueurs are described more fully in this post, but basically, they're alcohols steeped with enigmatic herbal blends. The recipes are often closely-held secrets (as it is for Campari) and bitters were often originally developed for medicinal purposes or digestive aids.

The Negroni

This classic gin cocktail is bursting with infused herbal flavors. Comprising gin, Campari and red vermouth (all infused alcohols, though sweet–or red–vermouth is infused wine), the Negroni's bursting with resinous juniper berry, caraway, and all of the mysterious herbs secreted into the proprietary gin, Campari and vermouth recipes.

Which Gin?
Gin comes in several styles, but because the Negroni contains so many other herbal notes, I like to keep the gin classic and simple. It's not the starring ingredient the way it would be in a martini, so using a top quality, very distinct gin like Junipero, Lot 209 or Hendricks would be like using extra virgin olive oil for frying. If you're loaded with cash, go ahead and indulge, but I think you can go with a solid standby like Bombay Saphire. If you want to try this but can't stand gin, you can subsitute for vodka.

Which Red Vermouth?
When it comes to red vermouth, everyone thinks about that green bottle with the old school label. Of course, I'm referring to Martini & Rossi. But I think this brand is the weakest link. The secret to a superb Negroni is to switch up the sweet vermouth for Punt E Mes (pictured above). Punt E Mes is chocately and syrupy with a dense mouthfeel and dark, rich flavor and color. Unlike Martini & Rossi, you can't see through Punt E Mes when you hold it up to the light. It's about $20, and you can find it in specialty wine shops or online.

The Negroni Recipe
1.5 oz Gin
1.5 oz Vermouth
1.5 oz Punt E Mes

Shake over cracked ice and serve in a chilled tumbler over more cracked ice with an orange wheel as garnish.