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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Maple Vinaigrette

I'm a relatively new convert to Chick Fil A. I'm not nearly as hardcore as many of the locals around here (I don't make it my life's ambition to eat there at least once a day, for instance, like some people I know), but I appreciate their classy take on the fast food theme. Additionally, I like the fact that for a fast food place, you can choose to eat relatively well. Take their new "superfood" salad. I know that kale is in vogue right now, so it strikes me as kind of a publicity stunt, but it's a darn tasty one. I don't think I'll complain too much that they decided to jump on the bandwagon.

I really like the maple vinaigrette, too. It's sweet but has just a bit of an edge and a pleasantly complex taste. After looking online to see if someone had already developed a good "copycat" recipe, I realized I'd have to do it myself. Most of the recipes I looked at in no way resembled the ingredient profile of Chick Fil A's vinaigrette. My version, I think, really comes very close to the flavor profile of the original.

This maple vinaigrette is darn tasty. While I do really like it on the kale/broccolini mixture Chick Fil A uses, it would work on all kinds of other salad mixtures. The original is fairly sweet, I think to help mitigate some of the bitterness you can often get in kale. If you want to make it less sweet, just reduce or eliminate the brown sugar. As for the nut mixture, you can use candied nuts or just a mixture of roasted ones. The nice thing about making the superfood salad at home is that you can customize it to your palate! They cap it off with dried, tart cherries, which I think is perfect, but you could use any other kind of dried fruit that floats your boat.

Lastly, before I give you the recipe, let's have a brief word about massaging. Massaging bitter greens like kale releases enzymes that help break those bitter compounds down, making your salad a more enjoyable experience. Simply wash, spin, and cut/tear your greens as usual, dress them, and then get in there with your hands and give them a back rub! While you're working them, you'll notice that the leaves will lose some of their inherent toughness (making kale especially more palatable, in my book) and the color will darken. It usually takes 2-3 minutes to get them just right. I don't like to do it too long, or the leaves become wilty and remind me of cooked greens - not what you want for a salad! This works for kale and also broccolini. You could make this salad with broccoli rabe as well (in my experience, broccolini has been hard to find), but it is a bit more bitter. Some folks like that more than others. You do not, by the way, need to blanch the broccolini or broccoli rabe, if using them; just be sure to give them a little massaging, too.

Maple Vinaigrette
Yield: approx 1 cup vinaigrette

1/4 real maple syrup
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS balsamic vinegar
1 tsp onion powder
4 tsp brown sugar (optional, or to taste)
1/16 tsp guar gum (optional, helps to emulsify the dressing)

Mix all ingredients together in a jar. Place a cap on the jar and shake vigorously for a full minute. Keep leftovers refrigerated and use within a week.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lebanese Yogurt Sauce

I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to have figured out this recipe. We love Middle Eastern fare. One of our favorites is kabobs, although we love everything else we've ever tried of it, too. Yogurt sauce is ubiquitous in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Unfortunately, I've just usually never been a big fan of them. Tzatziki is probably the best known, but it's always too tart for my taste. Enter our local Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eatery (hey, it's a small town - thus this one place has a wide range of cuisine). From the first time we ordered their gyros and souvlaki, I was hooked. I had never enjoyed eating a yogurt sauce so much! But what was the difference? When I asked them, they said it was basically just yogurt and cucumber, but when I would buy Greek or other yogurt from the supermarket, it never came out right.

Then I recently placed an order for some more cheese cultures. While surfing New England Cheese Making's site, I came across a yogurt culture that claimed to be "sweet." Was this what I was looking for? I had to give it a try!! I ordered some culture, but just sat on it for a while, never quite getting around to it. Then, while out of town, I was in a Mediterranean grocery and started asking them about the yogurts they had for sale and whether any of them had a sweeter flavor. The clerk suggested I try this one, which is a strained yogurt "cheese" (i.e. is drained until it is almost the texture a soft cheese). I gave it a whirl and it turned out exactly how I wanted it! It was absolutely delicious!

Just one problem. I live in a small town in the South. Not many Mediterranean groceries around here. But now that I had a recipe, I knew I had to give that "sweet" yogurt culture a try. It worked perfectly. It's a bit time consuming to make the yogurt sauce when you have to make the yogurt yourself first, but - I'm telling you - it's worth it! If you have a market nearby you can buy the stuff from, even better!! Even my three year old scarfs it down like there's no tomorrow. Give him a plate of kabob meat and yogurt sauce, and you've got one happy little boy.

Well, if you can buy the stuff, then you can ignore the next few paragraphs (lucky devil!). Otherwise, here's how to make your own yogurt.

First, you have to scald the milk. The starter culture that I use will work for 1-2 quarts. The process is the same for either amount, you just need to change the size of the vessels you use. I did one quart this time, but I'll probably do two in the future to maximize my time. Place the whole milk (please don't skimp on this) in a pan and heat to 185 degrees, stirring occasionally to reduce the chance of scorching. Use a thermometer and pull it off the heat as soon as it reaches temperature. Have a sink of cold water ready to set the pan in. The goal is to cool it down to between 110 and 112 degrees F fairly quickly.

Add the starter culture and stir for one to two minutes. Pour the milk into a jar (or other vessel) to culture. I use a jar when I make yogurt because you typically don't want to disturb the yogurt once it's done because it causes it to separate. In this case, it's not as big an issue because you're going to dump it all into a colander to drain anyway. I drilled a hole in the top of my lid so that my instant read thermometer can sit in there and keep tabs for me without having to disturb the whole kit and caboodle.

Use a heating pad to keep the yogurt at around 112 degrees F for approximately seven or eight hours. If you have a yogurt maker, even better. This set up works really well for me, though. I wrap the heating pad around and then a towel for insulation (and to hold it all together). A binder clip finishes it off. Adjust the heating pad temperature as needed to maintain as consistent a temperature as possible in the milk.

Once the yogurt is set and thickened, it's ready to drain, This particular yogurt culture did not set as firmly as some others I have used, but since I was going to drain it anyway, I wasn't concerned. I lined a colander with butter muslin (you can also use multiple layers of cheesecloth, but it will let some of the "curd" through). Let it drain for a couple of hours, until the yogurt is very thick.

Here, you can see just how thick it is, that it holds its shape quite well in the muslin. One quart of milk made about 1 1/2 cups of drained yogurt.

Add approximately an equal amount of grated English cucumber. Do not squeeze the liquid out. Add the remaining ingredients and let sit in the refrigerator for at least four hours. I actually think this sauce tastes best on days two and three. The first day, it's still a bit tart. By day four, it's starting to break down a little bit.

Lebanese Yogurt Sauce
Yield: about 2 cups

1 - 1 1/2 cups Labna* or "sweet"**, drained yogurt
1 cup grated English cucumber, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp microplaned garlic (or very, very finely minced)
1/2 tsp salt ***
1/8 tsp (white) pepper

After grating the cucumber, run a chef's knife through it to cut the shreds into smaller pieces. Do not squeeze the liquid out of the cucumber. Mix all ingredients together. Place in a covered container in the refrigerator for four hours or overnight. Tastes best if used within three days.

* Look for Labna in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean groceries.
** You can make your own "sweet" yogurt using the directions in the post above. Use the starter you can purchase here.
***The amount of salt you will need will depend on whether you use store bought or homemade Labna. Homemade will need more. Be sure to taste regularly to get it just right. In general, this sauce tastes best when it is a bit on the salty side.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Better Butter

This is one of those things that I always feel weird posting because it seems too simple. I originally started doing this when my boy first started eating solids, about three years ago. I wanted to reduce the amount of sodium in the butter I used, so I could use a wider range of other ingredients without feeling like I was blowing his daily limit too badly. Interestingly, a couple times over the last few years, I've briefly had to go back to regular butter and it's just not as good! I find myself getting anxious to get back to the "good stuff."

When I recently had multiple people in a short time period asking what butter I used because they thought it tasted so good, I decided maybe it was time to share my secret with the world. It's so simple, it's hard to imagine it making such a big difference! All I do is mix one stick of salted butter with one stick of unsalted butter. Then I put the mixture in a crock and leave it on the counter. So, so easy.

Why does it make such a big difference? I think the reason is two fold. First, I think salted butter is salty enough that it tends to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the butter. Second, look at the photo below. The top box is salted. See the ingredients? Cream and salt. That's it. Now look at the bottom box. See those ingredients? Cream and natural flavoring. Initially, I was, like, whoa!, what are they sticking in my butter!?! But after a little snooping around, it appears that to keep it from tasting too flat without any salt, manufacturers add a little lactic acid to the butter to give it a little tang. It's a cheaper way to give a little bit of cultured flavor to butter (like what the Europeans do) without actually having to culture the cream. I think between those two things, the butter just tastes extra fresh and delicious. Additionally, now that I am used to the lower sodium, regular salted butter seems overwhelming to me.

The other good news is, that in my experience, it doesn't matter what butter you use. Name brand or store bought, it all comes out tasting about the same. Yay! 

In other news, see the utensil in that bowl? That's called a "sandwich spreader" in food service lingo. May just be the most awesome tool ever made. I use them for everything. In this case, though, they make mixing butter like this a breeze and they make spreading soft butter on toast amazingly easy. I own around half a dozen of them and almost start crying when I realize they're all in the dishwasher. :-)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Blueberry Jam

It's blueberry season here in middle Georgia! Despite triple digit heat indexes yesterday, my boy and I went picking. We didn't get a lot picked, just enough for this one batch of jam, but the bushes are loaded with plenty of berries yet to come! I imagine there will be many more trips out there... hopefully on days that aren't quite so hot.

It's been a few years since I made blueberry jam. Long enough that I couldn't remember which recipe I had previously used. I decided to start with Linda Ament's recipe in her Blue Ribbon Preserves book. I tweaked it a bit here and there, but the important part is that her sugar to fruit to pectin ratios are generally spot on and I rarely have trouble with my jam setting with her recipes. This one was no exception.

This recipe makes a nice, large batch of jam: nine half-pints. I like recipes that maximize my time like that! I crushed the berries, measured them out, and heated them slowly with the sugar and lemon juice. I initially was concerned because the mixture seemed so liquid-y, even right up until I poured it into the jars, but the little bit left in the pot began setting up before I even had the lids on the jars! The flavor of this jam is fantastic. The lemon gives the palate a little fresh kick and the hint of cinnamon and nutmeg bring on warm memories of pie and days at grandma's.

Blueberry Jam
Adapted from Linda Ament's Blue Ribbon Preserves
Yield: 9 half-pints

5 cups crushed blueberries (fresh or frozen)
2 TBS fresh, strained lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp butter (salted or unsalted)
1/8 tsp cinnamon
dash nutmeg
7 cups sugar
2 (3-ounce) packets of liquid pectin

Measure the berries into a minimum 7 quart pot. Add the lemon juice, zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. Stir and heat gently over medium-low heat. When the berries begin to pop and the sugar is dissolved, increase the heat and bring to a full rolling boil. Boil for one to two minutes. Add the liquid pectin, stirring. Return to a full rolling boil and boil, stirring constantly, for one full minute. Remove from the heat. Skim any foam. Let the mixture sit for five minutes, stirring occasionally, to help keep the fruit pieces from floating in the final product. Pour jam into prepared jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe rims with a clean, damp cloth. Put on the lids and process in a slowly boiling water bath for ten minutes for half-pint jars. Increase processing time to fifteen minutes for pint jars. When processing is done, let jars sit in water five minutes with the heat off and canner lid off before removing to cool. This step helps prevent oozing jars, which are never fun.

If you are not an experienced canner, you can check out my Canning 101 post for more details on the process.
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