Dairy-Free Probiotics

After I nearly let my milk kefir grains die (again!) because the only person who would be able to drink said kefir was my husband, I decided to look into non-dairy probiotic cultured/fermented beverages. Long term, these are far cheaper than constantly buying probiotics. The two top contenders were:

Water Kefir (Also Coconut Water Kefir), which ferments sugary water into a refreshing, probiotic beverage that can take on the flavors of whatever fruits or other things are added. Water Kefir has been described as Fresca for Hippies.

Kombucha, whose starter is called a “tea mushroom” or SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast), takes a sweetened tea and does the same sort of thing to it as the water kefir, except that this particular combination also produces glucuronic acid, a detoxifying substance.

After much research, I couldn’t decide between the two – so I ordered starters for both from eBay. I know that there are other places to get them “free for shipping,” but this was fastest, simplest, and most secure. (The seller has over 2,000 ratings, all positive.)

I will send updates as soon as they arrive and I am able to make my first drinks.

Black Bean Dip

Fireside Black Bean Dip

So apparently the Golden Globes were tonight. I didn’t realize this because we don’t have a television, and I spent my evening snuggled by the fireside eating what our family affectionately, though perhaps inappropriately, calls “Black Bean Dip.” The only reason that I do know now is that I turned on “the internets” to write about the glories of said food, and discovered that Kate Winslet has won two awards. Oh, and lest we forget: Heath Ledger has won a posthumous award.

But back to the dip. Black Bean Dip is not a dip in the traditional sense of the word. It is not creamy or spreadable, though it can be scooped. It is alternatively known among the members of our congregation as “Russian Bean Dip” because my mother-in-law is well known for making it. I suppose now that I have begun to make it frequently it should be termed “German-Russian Bean Dip,” just to add another layer of confusion to its nomenclature. The recipe, of course, did not originate with me or with my mother-in-law; in fact, I have seen something rather similar to it on the back of a can of Bush’s black beans. But regardless of where it originated or what, precisely, it is termed (I have also heard it called a ‘salad.’) it is easy, healthy, and super tasty. Oh, and of course, it is naturally gluten and casein free. (Just make sure you don’t buy fancy flavored tortilla chips, which can contain hidden foodstuff nasties.)

The basic recipe is as follows, with changes I’ve made annotated. I’m all for using fresh corn in season and preparing your own beans from scratch, but all that requires forethought. The strength of this is that it can be put together using ingredients commonly in your refrigerator and pantry. (Well, commonly if you are from California or Arizona. I am of course aware that non-Western types don’t ordinarily consider avocados to be a grocery staple.)

Black Bean Dip

Black Bean Dip (Or Salad, if you prefer)

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer and 2-3 as a meal. GF/CF

1 Can of Black Beans

1 Can of Whole Kernel Corn*

2 small or 1 medium Tomato, chopped

1 small or 1/2 medium Red Onion**, finely chopped

1 or 2 Avocados, diced

The juice of 1/2 – 1 Lime

A good handful of Cilantro***, chopped

Salt and Pepper, to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a medium mixing bowl, and serve with tortilla chips and margaritas. The margaritas are of course optional, and could be replaced by tequila shots, as seen above.

This “dip” can easily become a “salad” when combined with some cooked brown rice. Vegetarians will tell you to stop there, that this forms a complete protein – and they’d be right. But if you really want to go for a salad that is tasty even when served cold, brown some ground beef with whatever taco seasonings float your boat (mine vary, but usually include freshly-ground cumin and some chile pepper, onion and garlic, and oregano if I can find it). Mix in to the rice and bean salad mixture, and enjoy.

I have also used it as a side to fajitas, huevos rancheros, and mixed in to a burrito – but all leftovers should ideally be eaten within a day.

* I frequently use only half a can as I prefer to let the beans predominate.

** Or use whatever onion you have on hand; I’ve used just about every onion imaginable.

*** If you are one of those strange anti-cilantro types, I suppose you could try parsley here, or simply leave it out.

How To: Clarify Butter in a Little Dipper Slow Cooker

Those of us who are sensitive to casein, the protein in dairy products (including, alas, butter), must either accept an entirely butter-free existence, buy expensive casein-free certified ghee, or learn to clarify butter ourselves. Granted, for many the idea of home-clarified butter is a scary thought. It’s probably not entirely casein free … you can see from the pictures that there are little remnants of milk solids left floating around. But given that butter is already very low in casein, and I’m removing say 90% of it, I’m okay with that.

To clarify butter, one must simply heat it slowly until a foam has gathered at the top and the rest has liquified and separated. The resulting clarified butter is butter in which the milk solids (containing the casein) and whey have been removed, resulting in pure butter fat. This rendered fat has a higher smoke point that butter, making for better frying. Perfectly clarified butter (as in the aforementioned ghee) can be stored at room temperature for many months without going rancid. As my butter is likely not perfectly clarified, I like to store it in the refrigerator and soften it as needed.

Clarifying Butter I

Of course, a Little Dipper Slow Cooker is not necessary to clarify butter. It’s just that I recently received one, and found that most of the recipes I’ve found for it are really not very friendly to us non-dairy folks. So I’ve been experimenting with other uses for the thing – including making my own yogurt. (Okay, that’s a dairy product, I know … but husbands and infants like yogurt. What can I say?) Moreover, I find that it’s the perfect size for 4 sticks (1 lb) of butter. Let’s proceed:

Step One

First, place four sticks (1lb) of butter in the Little Dipper. Plug in the Little Dipper, and walk away. Check your email, make your son a peanut butter sandwich, get out the vacuum to clean up after said sandwich eating. You don’t want to stir or otherwise upset the butter while it’s doing its thing.

When you finally remember that you’re melting butter, and that you should probably check on it, return to the kitchen to find this:

Step 2

Oopsies. It appears that the butter bubbled over just a tad, but then that’s the foam that we don’t want anyway. Good thing you remembered to put that towel under there. Moving on:

Step 3

Skim off the icky foamy bits. We don’t want those. I use a little mesh strainer, but before I bought one of those I used a flat spoon. Either way works, but this way you waste less of the yummy butterfat.

Step 4

Next, we want to get the butter fat separated from the white milk solids at the bottom. To accomplish this, I’ve poured the whole thing into this handy dandy fat separator … but in the past I’ve also just ladled the butterfat, taking care to avoid the solids. You can easily tell if they’re getting into the ladle; if they do, simply drop the contents of your ladle, allow everything to settle again, and try once more.

(Incidentally, this fat separator comes with a top portion that is intended to keep out bits of meats and whatnot. If it had a finer meshy/sievvy quality to it, I could have saved myself that previous step. Perhaps in the future I’ll try this with some cheesecloth draped across the top of the strainer so catch the foam?)

Step 5

Ahem. It seems that I forgot that the last time I did this, I only used two sticks of butter. That little glass jar did NOT hold all the butter I had clarified today, though this helps me to make my point. That jar had originally held 6 oz of commercially prepared ghee, bought for the exorbitant price of just under $6. Meanwhile, the four sticks of butter cost somewhere in the vicinity of $1.50 -$2.50 depending on where I buy it and whether it’s on sale.

So there you have it – delicious and nutritious (yes! it’s true! Butter is good for you.) butterfat, at a fraction of the cost.

Chicken In the Dutch Oven Will Have to Wait …

I’m afraid that the dutch oven estaba ocupda (ocupado? Is a dutch oven feminine or masculine?) as I was making some pinto beans, and they weren’t quite done. So instead I used my absolute favorite chicken-related kitchen gear, the Cocorico.

Meanwhile, the dutch oven got a little sister today. I walked past the clearance Tramontina at Tarjay, and regretted that I simply could not justify spending any of my Christmas money on a duplicate item. And then I saw the 4qt Enameled Cast Iron Braiser, normally $49.99 on clearance for $34.98. Suhweet. That I can do.

Tramontina Braiser

Tramontina/Chefmate 6.5 qt Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven

The Tramontina 6.5 qt Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, sold at Target under the brand "Chefmate."

The Tramontina 6.5 qt Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, sold at Target under the brand "Chefmate."

Anyone who knows anything about fancy kitchen gear has no doubt heard of the names “Le Creuset” and “All Clad.” They are the fantastically well-made, superbly performing sort of pots, pans, and other kitchen accoutrements that every home chef dreams of. Some are able to do more than just dream … and the rest of us have to find an alternative that will make fabulous food at 1/10 the cost.

Enter the Tramontina Enameled Cast Iron “casserole,” or Dutch Oven. Let’s get all the sniggering out of the way now … Dutch Ovens are serious business. As in, they make seriously tasty food out of mainly inexpensive ingredients, which is a huge bonus for, well, most of us. (It is of course entirely possible to make tasty food out of expensive ingredients in them, too.) They are the once and future kings of slow cookery, what every crackpot aspires to be when it finally grows up and can be put on the stovetop.*

I love Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, and though the folks at the Test Kitchen aren’t as good as Cooking Light as far as accessibility of mainstream recipes for us Food Issues types, they have many redeeming virtues. One of these is their extensive reviews of cooking equipment, which have frequently helped me to decide between seemingly similar items. It was on the basis of their favorable review that I purchased my Dutch Oven at Tarjay, where they are currently on sale (at least in my local store) for $42 … a far cry from the $60 I spent. (It should be noted that the folks over at Cook’s Illustrated now recommend the same brand’s dutch oven sold at WallyWorld, which is slightly cheaper – but putting aside any WallyWorld vs. Tarjay issues, that one is HUNTER GREEN. Not exactly in keeping with the rest of my gear.)

Here is my Tramontina as it arrived at my home:

Oh-so shiny and pretty ... and it'll give you quite a work out.

Oh-so shiny and pretty ... and it'll give you quite a work out.

Of course, unlike the Test Kitchen crew, I don’t have a wide variety of enameled cast iron gear to which I can  compare the Tramontina – so I can’t tell you about its relative ability to brown meat or seal in juices, but I can tell you that it does both these things with aplomb. I have thus far had no reason to be disappointed in my purchase, and I have used it frequently. A huge advantage of enameled cast iron over a regular cast iron dutch oven (which I also own) is that you can use dish soap to clean the thing. I am all for learning to cook with cast iron pots and pans … but I have a really really hard time keeping the darned things seasoned. Blame years of cooking with non-stick surfaces. At any rate, dish soap is really useful, though I should warn you of one thing: the inner porcelain enamel will stain. I had read about this in some of the online reviews, and thought that surely these people weren’t washing their pots well enough. In fact, for the first two or so months I avoided any stains, which only served to further confirm my suspicions.

Then I made wine-braised pears, the signature dish of this cookbook. Following that, I made a wine and tomato based sauce … and after that the interior finish was just about history. I will show you what the poor dearie looked like the other night, after I made a hard cider-braised pork stew for a friend who has recently had the most adorable little girl. I’d give you the recipe, except I’m not entirely certain what it was that I put into it. I was informed by the babysitter who raided the fridge the night before we were to deliver said meal to said friend at church that it “was quite tasty, and really hit the spot.”

I will tell you one ingredient, though – because this explains so much about how I cook. Fennel. As in, fennel root. As in, something that I bought by accident because I thought it was celeriac/celery root, yet another vegetable I had never cooked with. Fennel, sometimes mistakenly called Anise, has a pretty strong licorice smell. I do not like licorice. Husbands also dislike licorice. Which means that this poor fennel bulb or root or whatever the thing is called was going to be doomed to die of a broken heart in the back of my vegetable tray, had not inspiration struck. I was low on celery, which I normally use for this sort of thing, and I was already going to throw in some granny smith apples. (Why not? The cider was “granny smith hard apple cider.” Seemed like it would work.) So I chopped the sucker up … or at least half of it. Then I chopped some onions, green apples, celery, carrots, and potatoes. And as I held them to my nose one after another, (in a manner reminiscent of Remy the Rat) I made the final decision that they would probably go well together. After all, the smells kind of jived with each other. And any way, fortune favors the bold.

I’m still waiting to see if what was left of the meal was edible. I really only sampled the broth a few times, but I didn’t have time to taste everything else because I was running out to see the Nutcracker that night. Regardless, here she is … ain’t she a beauty?

Wish you could see the lovely brown speckles on the interior of the lid.

Wish you could see the lovely brown speckles on the interior of the lid.

Now to be fair, most of that bottom stuff did come out with the aforementioned soap. But all the brown and vaguely purple stuff on the sides? That stays. I will wear it as a badge of honor. Those stains say “this woman cooks.” Kinda like stretch marks, only entirely more tolerable.

As I bought my sister-in-law one of these beauties for Christmas, I intend to post some simple “getting to know your dutch oven” recipes here, beginning tomorrow with an easy and foolproof way to prepare a braised/roasted chicken.

*Yes, I am aware that there are now crackpots that go stovetop, but they are STILL not as cool as a Dutch Oven.

Step Into My Office, Baby

Fire code restricts us to two adult human beings at any one time.

Fire code restricts us to two adult human beings at any one time.

This is where I make things happen. In the future, when I review cooking equipment, make a new dish, or try to be coordinated enough to document step by step how I cook something, this will be the backdrop – except it’s not usually this clean. Right now, for instance, the dishes from this evening’s “oops my in-laws are coming over to watch our son and I should probably feed them” dinner are still unwashed, and will likely remain so until tomorrow. I’m woman enough to admit that.

I try not to complain about our “new” (older) kitchen, though I confess that the oven does drive me to the border of reason. At any given time during cooking, it’s up to fifty degrees off. Not reliably fifty degrees…that would make things easier. But if I do break out into the occasional lament for my kitchen that was, perhaps especially the counter space (ungrateful wretch that I am – I used to resent having to wipe them down many times a day), then hopefully you will understand and forgive me.

The Kitchen at Sierra, where I was spoiled rotten:

Red, Shiny, and oh-so Spacious

Red, Shiny, and oh-so Spacious

There are books of historical cookery that often have to be translated for modern cooks. “When the oven is goodly hot” will be come “375 degrees Fahrenheit” and “add some flour thereto” will be rendered “measure and sift 2 cups all-purpose flour.” I sometimes think that any cookbook I write would have to sound more like my historical forebears. The fact that my oven is more of the “goodly hot” or “smoking hot” type than one that conforms to precise measurements of temperature is merely the beginning. Mostly, my cooking is sort of a jazz riff on a chord – recipes are there to be altered, adapted, or abandoned. This can go well or very, very wrong. As long as it’s still edible, it’s all good. Otherwise, I have to chalk it up to painful (and sometimes expensive) experience.