The crazy food preservation day: How to cold smoke cheese (and almonds)

I nearly worked myself into a frenzy after last night’s post thinking about all the things I need to get done before I leave for an out-of-state conference in just over a week.  There’s so much to do!  But I am happy to say that after a full day in the kitchen, I managed to knock out a lot of the food preservation that needed to happen this weekend.  I smoked a ton of cheese (and almonds!), and shot the video (see below).  I also dealt with all those pears and made some pear preserves.  Sadly, some of the pears were beginning to rot.  The good news in all that, though, is 1) I was actually relieved I didn’t have to deal with the entire lot of pears and 2) the chickens benefited tremendously from eating those rotting pears–they were some happy girls!  I also made some pizza dough (for tomorrow night’s dinner) and garlic scape pesto–to be used on the pizza dough that is tomorrow night’s dinner.  Granted, my feet and legs were achy by the end of the day, and I was so tired that I only ate popcorn for dinner, but it was a very good, productive day at the urban farmstead!

Now, about the cheese and almonds…

If you’ve never smoked your own cheese and almonds, my friends, it is high time you consider doing it.  It’s so easy!

Smoking cheese is done via a cold smoking process, which means you do not add any heat while the cheese is exposed to the smoke, unlike smoking meats which is usually done over heat so that the meat cooks while it smokes.  There are a variety of ways to cold smoke, but I use a 12″ tube smoker that holds wood pellets, and I simply set it on the rack in my BBQ grill.  You can see in the video how easy it is to set up your grill as a smoker.  One thing you have to keep in mind while smoking cheese: outside air temperature–if it is warm, say 80 or 90 degrees F, your cheese will melt.  Smoking cheese is best done on a cool day (40 – 60 degrees is optimal).  Even if it is not hot enough outside to melt your cheese, if it is too warm, all the oils will sweat out of the cheese and pool on the surface of your cheese blocks, similar to how the oil pools on top of your pizza cheese.  This is no bueno.  So only smoke your cheese on a nice, cool day, preferably out of direct sunlight, too (the added heat from the sunlight could cause your cheese to sweat and/or melt).

Smoking cheese takes some time, so allow 4-5 hours for the process.  I typically smoke my cheese for 3-4 hours, and I flip my cheese over halfway through so that the smoke coloration and flavor is evenly distributed on my cheese blocks.  I have been using apple wood as my smoke flavor, but there are lots of options out there: cherry, mesquite, hickory, oak, alder, pecan…the list goes on.  Here are a couple of references that can inform you on which wood you choose: a chart and a blog.

Once your cheese has been smoked, it needs to cure for a few weeks in order to temper the smoked flavor and also to allow it time to work its way deep into the cheese.  In order to do this, and to keep your cheese from spoiling, you’ll need to vacuum pack your cheese.  The vacuum sealer is just one other tool that I use heavily in my food preservation regimen, so if you don’t have one, it’s something to consider.  I only recently–within the last year or two–added a vacuum sealer to my fleet of kitchen tools.  But I love it and I use it regularly.  And if you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, they aren’t all that expensive, either.

Smoking almonds isn’t quite the process as cheese, because you don’t have to let them cure afterwards–you can pop them right into your mouth once they cool!  Almonds don’t have to be cold smoked, but I do it this way because it makes sense to me to use the smoke as efficiently as possible, and I have the space on my grill to do it.  Before smoking almonds, you will want to soak them for a few minutes in a fairly strong brine solution.  Today I used 3 cups almonds in 3 cups water with 3 teaspoons of salt.  Let the almonds soak for 10 or 15 minutes, then drain the brine and spread the almonds on a baking sheet.  After cold smoking, you will need to put the almonds in a low oven to dry out completely because they will still be damp after smoking (this will make your house smell like smoke a little bit).  In the video I used 250 degrees F, but that wasn’t quite hot enough.  In the past I have used 325 degrees F and that was perfect (I just forgot that today).  Stick the baking sheet in the oven for 10 minutes, then stir the almonds around.  You might hear the skins cracking and popping a bit–it sounds like Rice Krispies once you’ve added the milk–and put them back in the oven for another 10 minutes.  Then remove the almonds from the oven and allow them to cool completely on the baking sheet.  They will continue to crackle and pop while they dry and that is exactly what you want to hear!  Once they are completely cooled you can pop them in your mouth.  To store, put them in an airtight container and keep them at room temperature.  If it is going to be a while before you eat the almonds, you can vacuum seal them to keep them from going stale.

For all the gnarly details on smoking cheese (and almonds!), check out this video:

 

It’s that time of year again—the preservation season is upon us

This is one of the busiest times of the gardening season.  Right now, it is raining/snowing outside and my garden season is essentially over.  What the deer (or my little rascal, MaeBelle) didn’t eat of my tomatoes and other veggies, I have harvested and either eaten or frozen or dried or canned in some form.  In a way, it’s a relief to be finished with my own garden right now so I can focus on other things for a while.  Garlic-planting is still to come—but not until late October.  The summer CSA is still going strong for another 4 weeks, then our fall share will begin immediately afterwards and take us through Thanksgiving—so I’ve still got over 2 full months of fresh produce coming my way.  So between the CSA, what I’ve harvested out of my own garden, and what my neighbors have given me, I’ve been busily preserving all sorts of foods for the past few weeks so I can enjoy them this winter and early next spring.

Since my tomatoes were nearly a complete bust this year I bought a 10 lb box of cherry tomatoes to eat and preserve.

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This is maybe half of the 10 lbs left to eat & preserve–what beautiful little jewels!

I ended up drying 2/3 or more of the tomatoes because I absolutely love dried tomatoes and I use them all winter long for my tomato fix.  And drying tomatoes is so easy AND economical!  I cannot purchase sun-dried tomatoes at the supermarket.  First of all, I don’t really like the oil-packed ones, and secondly, they are insanely expensive.  If you have a food dehydrator (and if you don’t have a food dehydrator, you should seriously consider getting one if you want to preserve food) you can make your own dried tomatoes for pennies compared to those expensive jars in the grocery store.

I simply cut my cherry tomatoes into halves or thirds, depending on how large the tomato was, placed them onto the dehydrator trays, stacked them up (I have 4 trays), placed the lid on top, plugged in the dehydrator, and walked away.

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All cut up and ready to dry, cap’n!
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I’ve had this dehydrator for YEARS, and I love it!  They still make it and it’s very inexpensive.

Some of them dried overnight, others I had to dry a little longer because they were still a little too juicy.  I dry mine until they are leathery, with just a little bit of give to them when you bend them.  Because there is still moisture in the tomato, they are not shelf stable—meaning you can’t store them at room temperature or you risk spoilage via mold and/or bacteria.  So I toss mine into a plastic zippered baggie and store them in the freezer.  When I want to add that little sweet spark of dried tomato to a dish, I just reach into the bag and pull out however many I want.  Easy peasy!  Sometimes I re-hydrate the tomatoes by putting them in a small glass bowl with a little bit of boiling water, sometimes I just chop them up and add them to whatever dish I’m preparing.  It varies depending on the dish and, more often, my mood.  If you preserve no other food in your house, and you like dried tomatoes, you should seriously consider making your own.

For the remaining 1/3 of the tomatoes, some I used to make a balsamic vinegar caramelized onion & cherry tomato conserve a few weeks ago that was beyond words yummy on a slice of bread with some cream cheese.  And I simply ate a ton of them—just popped them in my mouth most of the time, though I did get on a kick of making this awesome cherry tomato, cucumber, mozzarella cheese, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette salad for a week or two.  Sweet, tart, tangy, cheesy, herby—oh, it was so good!  That’s the stuff summer is made of.  I will miss that salad in January, but I know I’ll be able to enjoy it again next summer with fresh, locally grown veggies & herbs…and that the wait will be well worth it (because I know damn well if I make it in January with a cucumber and tomatoes from the supermarket I will hate myself because it will have absolutely no flavor—so no giving in!).

Last weekend I made some plum & blueberry preserves.  This weekend I’ve got several things on my plate.  I need to make some pear preserves with the 10 pounds of pears my neighbor gave me, I need to smoke the backlog of cheese I have in the fridge (this week’s video!), and I need to make garlic scape pesto from those garlic scapes I harvested waaaaaay back in early summer and have been sitting in my fridge, patiently waiting for me to make time for pesto.  It will happen this weekend.  It has to happen this weekend because I’ve got the next 4 or 5 weekends booked up with work, festivals, travel plans, in-laws visiting, (rifle) hunting season beginning, and finishing the fence, among other things.  I also need to render some more lard (more on that in another post) to clean out the freezer in preparation for hunting season—right now, we have no space to put any meat!  But that will have to wait until late October as well.

No rest for the weary this time of year.  But you know what?  When I slather a spoonful of pear preserves onto a biscuit this winter or sprinkle some chopped dried tomatoes on my pizza I’m going to be so glad that I put the time in to preserve this bounty of food that I am incredibly fortunate to have.

Parsnip muffins–yes, you can

Parsnips.  In a muffin?  Seriously.  If you are one of those people who cringe when you see parsnips in your CSA share…well, listen up because I’ve got a sweet deal for you.  These muffins totally rock.  They are moist.  They are just sweet enough.  They have a hint of lemon.  And if you don’t really like parsnips, that’s the best part–you can’t taste them!  My version is a hack on a recipe I found in a Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog from way back when.  Their version is vegan–and you can certainly re-veganize this recipe by using an egg substitute of your choice.  You will love these.  Check out the recipe and see for yourself.

 

Chili verde (It’s so hot)!

Oh my goodness, I’m feeling like a roasted chili these days.  It is hot in Montana this summer!  It’s hot outside, it’s hot inside my house, this chili is hot…not spicy hot (unless you want it that way–the go for it!), just hot off the stove hot.  I probably should have made a salad for this week’s video or something like that, but you know tomatillos don’t last forever in Montana, so as the old saying goes: You gotta make hay while the sun is shining.

So I made some stinkin’ chili verde!  And you know what?  It is GOOOOOOOOD!  It’s even better for lunch the next day.  So get on the tomatillo and chili bandwagon with me and make yourself some.  Don’t want to eat it all?  It will freeze!  Then you can enjoy when you really DO want something hot to eat.  Here’s the recipe, and the video is below.  It may be hot in the kitchen, but you’ll enjoy this one!

Spice up your day with a little eggplant curry

It should come as no surprise that I love food of all kinds, but I particularly love curries.  I love the way the simple act of combining 7 or 8 spices into an exotic mixture carries the aroma of far away places to my kitchen.  Since I can’t travel to India right now, I’ll settle for a little taste of India at my dining room table right here in Montana.  Plus, it’s a great way to use the CSA share this week!  Want the recipe?  It’s here.  And for even more fun check out the video:

 

You’ve gotta try these jalapeno poppers!

If you like jalapeno poppers, then I’ve got a treat for you!  We got jalapenos in this week’s share, and I combined them with the hot pepper cheese curds from the Fun Share, some roasted garlic cheese, cream cheese, and feta cheese (that’s the secret weapon!) for an out-of-this-world spicy treat.  Best of all, they are baked, not fried.  I cooked mine on the grill this week just because I didn’t want to turn on the oven and they turned out beautifully.  The recipe is here.  Give ’em a try and I hope you love them as much as I do.

My amazing little artichoke is flowering

Upon re-reading my title, I realized it might actually sound a little bit naughty…if you are the type that keeps your head in the gutter, that is (and apparently I am one of those people if I thought this in the first place.  Hmmm.).  Upon even further reflection though, I think the thought came to mind because years ago, when I was teaching biology, I was doing an internet search for an image of an artichoke to use in a lecture.  One would think that searching for “artichoke” is innocent enough, but I guess I was naive because I stumbled across an image of a very well-endowed woman wearing, well, not much of anything.  How exactly was that related to artichokes?  I’m still trying to figure that one out.  If you happen to know the answer, please let me know.

Anyhoo…moving on.

My artichoke–the plant…in my garden–the one that survived the -22 degrees F winter last year.  Oh, right…that one!  Yes, well, I let a few of the flowers bloom in the hopes that I can save the seed and propagate some Montana hardy globe artichokes.  Because starting the seed in January is sort of a pain and I would rather not dig up my plants every year to overwinter in the basement, only to have the aphids hatch out of the soil and suck them dry a few weeks before they were to be replanted (Harumph!).  You see, I would absolutely love to offer artichokes to our CSA members!  And I will make it happen.  Maybe next year, maybe not next year, but it will happen.

Have you ever seen an artichoke in flower?  They are BEAUTIFUL!

artichoke-bloom

And they are humongous.  And the bees love ’em.  This one actually has a bee on it (on the right side you can just barely see some its black & yellow fuzzy body tucked down in the purple petals).  Here’s a few more pictures:

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And these were the small heads I let bloom!  I harvested the big ones!

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We have at least a month, and possibly a lot longer, before the first freeze is expected, so these babies should have plenty of time left to set seed.  When the time comes to clean the seed from the flower head, I’ll post some photos and/or video because it is quite a process to clean them!  The first time I cleaned the seed, I was surprised at how involved it was.  Teaser: needle nose pliers were involved.  That’s all I’m gonna say.

This weekend Hubby is continuing work on the fence.  It’s been on the wish list for a few years now, and I’m so happy it’s finally coming to fruition.  The deer will have to find other peppers, cucumbers, beans, strawberries, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, rhubarb, sunflowers, kale (the list is pretty much endless) to eat because this buffet is closing its doors.  The chickens will have a much larger space to roam, so that will make them very happy.  It will make me very happy, too, because it means the Girls won’t have access to the backyard and the deck anymore–which means: I won’t be stepping in chicken poop anymore when I go out on my deck!

Ah, it is the simple things in life that bring me the greatest pleasure.

Grilling in the backyard: summer squash, fennel, & tomatoes!

This week’s share gave us patty pan squash (y’know, those little squashes that look like flying saucers?), fennel, and Roma tomatoes.  Oh!  And BASIL.  So I decided to grill for dinner last night, and I added a sweet onion, a few mushrooms, and some Brie cheese to the mix.  Then I topped everything with a balsamic vinegar reduction.  It. was. yummy.

To make the reduction:

1 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine everything in a small saucepan and bring to boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, for about 20 minutes, until the vinegar has reduced to a thick syrup.  Turn off heat and let cool.

For the few leftovers that remained, I tossed them into my butter lettuce salad with some cucumber, bell peppers, and sunflower seeds.  Then I topped with the balsamic vinegar reduction for the dressing.  I’m pretty excited about lunch today, too.

For our CSA members: if you are looking for ideas on how to use your fennel, check out these sources:

http://www.finecooking.com/recipe/tomato-soup-with-fennel-leek-potato  You might save this one as we’re going to get leeks and more fennel in the next week or so.

http://www.marthastewart.com/286398/fennel-recipes

http://www.cookinglight.com/food/in-season/fennel-recipes

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/11/fennel-recipes_n_1152097.html

These should get your brain humming wildly with fennel possibilities!  And for this week’s video…

 

More summer knitting, including a new design– the growler tote!

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I don’t usually knit much in the summer–it seems like such a winter activity, something to do on those long winter nights while cuddled up in front of the wood stove.  But this summer I’m keeping the knitting needles busy because I have had a couple of knitting orders to fulfill.  The good thing is I’ve had quite a bit of windshield time traveling for work this summer, which has allowed me, as a passenger, to do something productive while on the road.  It works out rather nicely.  I never knit while behind the wheel, just to be clear.  I’m a proud multi-tasker, but even that one is beyond me!

A woman in my barre class loved my little Kindle bag I made earlier this spring so much that she wanted me to make one for her friend, whose birthday is this month.  The only requirement was that this friend liked orange, so I was free to mess around with colors.  This is what I came up with:IMG_2619

And the inside looks like this:IMG_2621

I’m please with how it turned out, so I’ve got a couple ideas for the next one I’m going to make.  While looking for a little decorative bling to sew on the outside, I found these really cute little octopus pendants–so my next design will be an ocean theme with blue and/or turquoise yarn and hopefully I can find some cute aquatic-themed fabric to go along with it.

And then there’s the growler tote.  I designed it earlier this summer and I just finished it last week.  It’s knit with 2 strands of yarn to create a thick fabric and I lined it with a fleece pocket to keep the beer cool and to add additional strength to the bag.  I think it turned out pretty rad.  IMG_2625

And I think it’s going to carry well, even when full:IMG_2630

The woman who bought the above Kindle bag wants me to go down to one of our local breweries and show it off to see if anyone is interested in buying one.  She thinks the tote will be a hit–because this community takes its beer very seriously.  We have 3 breweries in Helena and a 4th one is in the works.  For a town of this size, that’s nuts, especially since we can barely seem to hang on to a decent restaurant around here.  So we’ll see what happens.  I might have a busy winter ahead of me!