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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Paneer - or Ricotta. Whatever!

So I'm cruising through the blogosphere and come across instructions for making ricotta cheese at home. I'm looking at this and lo and behold - it's basically unpressed paneer. Technically, ricotta cheese is made from whey leftover after making a cheese that uses rennet. I don't know about you, but I don't do much cheese making using rennet. Using whole milk makes an acceptable substitute, plus I already know how to do this - it's just paneer without the pressing!

Basically all paneer/ricotta cheese is is heated milk with acid added to separate the curds and whey, and then strained. Paneer is either kneaded or pressed, ricotta cheese is only drained.

The acid used could be lemon juice, lime juice, or distilled white vinegar. The acid most often called for in paneer recipes in the states is lemon juice. However using lemon juice requires that the paneer be washed or soaked in cold clear water for a couple of hours to remove the strong lemony flavor that leaves.

While I found the Serious Eats recipe interesting (for one thing I'd like to try the microwave method next time I make paneer), it calls for an inordinately high amount of acid - 1 T per cup of milk, which would be a full cup of acid for a gallon of milk. That's about 4 times more acid than I've ever needed to make paneer!

I usually don't need to use even the full amount of acid normally called for to make paneer, because I have found that I can often get the curds and whey to separate just using organic plain yoghurt. If that doesn't completely separate the curds out, just 1 T of lemon or lime juice, or distilled white vinegar will usually complete the job. I've found that distilled white vinegar doesn't leave a noticeable aftertaste when used in this small amount, and just 1 T of lemon juice leaves only a very slight lemony taste, not enough to be unpleasant if it's noticeable at all. This cuts out the whole soaking/rinsing step altogether and produces a smooth paneer with a neutral flavor.

One other thing I do to make paneer that I don't think most other people do (actually I've never known anyone who does this but me) is to use powdered milk to increase yield. This will make the curds denser and less ummm, fluffy? Not sure how to put it, but it gives it a consistency that is fine when you're planning to press it anyway, but not really what you want for desert paneer or ricotta cheese. You want desert paneer to be nice and smooth and creamy. For ricotta cheese, the additional milk solids increase the risk of ending up with curds that are too dense or even rubbery. The addition of powdered milk to grocery store 3.5% milk is optional for paneer intended for main courses, and should definitely be left out for any other use.

Finally, I do not find the addition of salt to be either necessary or desirable. YMMV.


1 gallon whole milk, or, better yet if you can find it, raw Jersey milk.
1 c powdered milk (optional for paneer for main dish)
1/4 c organic plain yoghurt (you need LIVE culture)
1 to 2 T distilled white vinegar or lemon or lime juice, if the yoghurt doesn't fully separate the curds and whey

A colander
A large stainless steel or enameled pan or stock pot
A milk jug filled with water or other weight (not needed for ricotta or desert paneer)

Flour sack cloth or clean muslin intended for cheesemaking. Don't try to use typical cheesecloth - the stuff that looks like gauze. The weave is too loose. You want a lint free cotton muslin or linen towel, or flour sack cloth. You used to be able to get good flour sack cloth towels at Walmart but the ones they carry now are a much looser weave. The old ones were lots better, but the new ones will do. Or you could try these:

Flour Sack Cloth Towels

I can't tell from the pictures how tight the weave is but they're at least no looser weave than what you can get in Walmart, if you can find them there.


Add the powdered milk if you are using it and stir well.

Heat the milk to just barely simmering. DO NOT LET IT BOIL! Mostly because you greatly increase the chances of making a mess, and also it just doesn't need to be that hot.

When you see the first few bubbles, add the yoghurt and stir. The curds should separate quickly. If the whey still looks milky, add the vinegar or lemon juice one T at a time until the whey is a thin yellowish-green color. It almost never takes more than 1 T. Remove from heat immediately.

Line a colander with your muslin or sack cloth. If you want to reserve the whey, suspend the colander over a large pan to catch the whey - you can use it to make soups and curries, to make chapati or puri, or just google "uses for whey".

After the whey has drained off, twist the towel to make a sort of a bag and suspend it over the sink or a pan to finish draining. (One way to do this is to tie this makeshift bag to a spoon laid across the top of a large stock pot).

Let the curds hang for about 15 minutes. Do not press. Unwrap it and you're done. The sooner you use it the better.

FOR INDIAN DESERTS such as Ras Gullah:
For desert use, you will not press the curds, you will instead leave it hanging until the curds are cool enough to handle and you will knead the curds.

FOR MAIN DISHES such as Mattar Paneer:
Fold the straining cloth over the drained curds, remove from the colander, set on a plate or inside a pan and put a heavy weight on top to press the curds. I usually put the paneer wrapped in the muslin in the bottom of a large pan and set a plate on top of it, then put a milk jug full of water on top. I let that sit in the fridge overnight. Take it out the next day - there will be additional whey pressed out - unwrap it, cube it, and you're good to go.

That's all there is to it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Things in a can

Some recent threads round about the chowhound e-world got me to pondering some of the things I've seen in cans that I would never never never NEVER never NEVER NEVER even considering opening, let alone actually ingesting.

These include:

Pork Brains in Milk Gravy
Potted Meat Food Product (Food product? Kind of like Cheese product when applied to yellow blocks of plastic?)
Underwood Deviled Ham - is no one suspicious of a potted meat product that comes from a company named PET?

BTW, some of these include something called "mechanically separated poultry".

While the immediate picture that springs to my mind is that of robots callously separating a loving hen from her chicks and rooster, apparently what this actually means (according to the USDA):

is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones with attached edible tissue through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue. Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since 1969. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it would be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as "mechanically separated chicken or turkey" in the ingredients statement. The final rule became effective November 4, 1996.


I quiver in terror!

You will be relieved to know that "mechanically separated beef" is now deemed unfit for human consumption (due to the mad cow disease scare).

However "mechanically separated" chicken, turkey, pork, and who knows what else are still "fit" for human consumption, apparently. So 'ware the Mad Pig disease outbreaks in our immediate future!

Here is one man's journey of discovery with regard to "Potted Meat Food Product"

Be sure to play the advertising jingle at the end - quite catchy!

Then there's lutefisk.

Yes, lutefisk. The Dreaded Lutefisk. Lutefisk does not, apparently, actually come in cans, or at least if it does, I've not been able to find it (much to my lack of disappointment). In fact I am unsure how you would properly package something one of the main ingredients of which is "lye". Perhaps in glass lined casks. I don't know. The gelatinous, pale, quiveringness of this substance - I hesitate to call it "food" - would be enough to put one off one's feed, were it not for the absolutely appalling smell. However, according to one lutefisk manufacturer:

Lutefisk has always had a bad rap because of the perceived nasty smell, but when it is processed correctly, "it doesn't stink," Kimmel vows.

"It doesn't have a strong flavor either," he said, smiling. So why do people eat something that has a sometimes-questionable texture, described by some as "glutinous" or like Jell-O and with very little flavor?

"It's the butter."

Yes. It's the butter. People eat fish dissolved in lye solely for the chance to nosh down on some butter.

Well pass me the butter dish and a spoon. Hold the lutefisk.

Here is the PROPER way to eat lutefisk.

Then there is Simmenthal Jellied Cured Beef. In attempting to research this item, I came across this blurb on the Kraft Foods website:

"Italians have long enjoyed our Simmenthal brand of canned meat in jelly. Simmenthal is a convenient ready-to-eat meal or can be used in many tasty recipes. It’s perfect with salad, vegetables, cold rice or pasta. Simmenthal’s latest products include beef in jelly with chili and chicken in jelly with curry. "

"Beef in Jelly with Chili" and "Chicken in Jelly with Curry". Just when you thought we had plumbed the depths of culinary depravity!

Oh my stars and little hoppy toads! WAIT! I take that back! Lest someone should think to come up with canned Hoppy Toads In Jelly With Milk Gravy!

Oddly enough, there are more depths yet to be plumbed. Let us consider Cuitlacoche.

What, you may very well ask, in your innocence (or more likely by this point, foolishness), is Cuitlacoche?

Well, it is also known as Mexican Truffles. Truffles! Yum! (not so much from my point of view, but whatever . . . ) Who would want a faux truffle?

Well truffles are AWFULLY expensive. A 750g white truffle recently sold at auction for 100k euros. For those Americans among us, that's almost $5300 per oz. Granted that was at the high end, but still. Truffles COST.

Cuitlacoche, however, are MUCH cheaper. You can get a 7 oz can of Cuitlacoche for about $8, or 2 lbs frozen for in the neighborhood of $40. Fresh Cuitlacoche? I'm not so sure anybody should actually want fresh Cuitlacoche (or frozen, or canned, for that matter). But you can get it that way, at least in Mexico.

Alright, alright, alRIGHT already! So I have made fun of Cuitlacoche (apparently also spelled huitlacoche) without telling you a THING about what it tastes like. So off I go in search of someone who has actually tasted the stuff, and what do I find, but a blog named "STEVE! Don't eat it!"

Apparently Steve DID eat it. And this is what he has to say about it:

"So, how does Huitlacoche taste? Does it matter?? LOOK AT IT!

I guess it would be fair to say it doesn't taste as truly horrible as it looks. The flavor is elusive and difficult to describe, but I'll try: "Kinda yucky." Hey, that wasn't so hard after all. (Sometimes I forget I'm a goddamn wordsmith.)

For any connoisseurs, I'm not sure if this stuff would go better with red wine or white. How about with a bottle of Bactine? I've always found that goes great with infections."

For the curious among you (who have hung with me thus far) I'll tell you what c/huitlacoche is.

It's corn smut. Yes, that awful, horrible, spore that if it infects your corn crop can only be BURNED out. Well, except for some farmers here in the states who have sued for and gotten permission to purposely infect their corn crops with smut so they can get a piece of that $20 a pound action.

Here is Steve's blog address so you can read the whole smutty story.

As a final salute to culinary depravity, I refer you to the following blog entry. Nothing I could say or do could possibly top this story, aptly, so APTLY entitled "The Six Most Terrifying Foods in the World".

I laughed so hard it hurt. My son asked me what the heck I was doing.

"Reading about horrible food" sez I.

Looking at me with sad puppy dog eyes, he pouted "Is that REALLY a smart thing to be doing just before you cook me dinner?"

So on that note, I must be off. Returning to the world of the merely plebian Marinated Tofu Stir Fry is such a let down!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pasta e Fagiole

This is a huge recipe, makes a bunch. When I make soup I like to make enough to freeze. It doesn't really take any longer and soup freezes well. This is one of my "freestyle" recipes, eg I never make it QUITE the same way twice. It depends on what I have on hand.

2 15 oz cans cannelini beans, or 1 C dried (cannelini is "white kidney beans")
2 15 oz cans red kidney beans or 1 C dried
8 c chicken stock
1 c tomato sauce
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
1 large onion coarsely chopped, or to taste
1/2 c chopped or diced carrots
2 to 3 stalks of celery, coarsely chopped
2 dried Bay leaves
1 T dried basil
1 T dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste
1 to 2 T olive oil
2 T minced garlic
2 T white vinegar
1 T sugar
2 T crushed red pepper or to taste
1 lb ditalini or other small pasta

1 lb hamburger

If using dried beans:

I'm not sure if red kidney beans and cannelini have the same or different cooking times. To be on the safe side, if you're using dried beans for both, cook them separately. If I ever find a source of dried cannelini beans locally I'll figure this out and update this recipe.

Note that any white bean (navy beans, Great Northern beans) can be substituted for the Cannelini if you can't find them. Navy or Great Northern beans will also probably cost 1/2 or 1/3rd of what the Cannelini beans will cost you, and can easily be found dried. Cooking instructions for those may vary. Check the package for details.

Soak beans overnight in 2 to 3 c water OR

Put 1 c of dried beans in 2 c of water. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour off the liquid. We are "de-gassing" the beans, making them more easily digested and less likely to cause people, errrr, intestinal distress. Cover with 2 c of water, bring to a boil again, remove from heat and let sit for one hour.

After an hour or if you soaked overnight, bring beans to a boil again, then turn down to a low simmer for approximately 1 hour. This time will vary. Check the beans at least every 15 minutes, you may need to add water. Keep them covered with water. When they have softened (pick one out and bite it to check), remove from the heat and set aside.

Put your chicken stock in a large 8 qt stock pot (if you are making the full recipe). Bring to a boil. Add the chopped veggies, herbs, sugar, vinegar, and redd pepper flakes. Do a fast simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the chopped veggies, tomato sauce, and tomatoes, and let simmer on low for a few minutes.

While the stock is simmering, fry up the hamburger if you are using it. Pour off the oil and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a small frying pan and add the minced garlic - cook for a few minutes over moderate heat. Add to the stock. Add the beans, with cooking liquid. Add the hamburger (if it clumped up you can mash it into little bits with a fork or pastry blender) at this time, if you are using it.

If it doesn't look tomato-ey enough for you, add some more tomato sauce or diced tomatoes at this time.

Bring all ingredient back to a boil and simmer for another 5 minutes to heat all ingredients through.

IF you are serving immediately, go ahead and add all the ditalini at this time.

If, however, you cooked up the whole batch intending to freeze or store until later, DO NOT add the ditalini at this time. Instead go ahead and package the soup up for freezing or the fridge. Do not add the ditalini until you are ready to serve! If you go ahead and add the ditalini now and then try to save it for later, you will end up with great big soggy ditalini and no soup. The ditalini will soak it all up. So add the ditalini just before serving - it takes 10 to 15 minutes to cook the ditalini, depending on the ditalini.

The entire recipe is intended for 1 lb of ditalini. You'll probably end up with in the neighborhood of 6 qts of soup. So when you do reheat it preparatory to serving, just add a proportionate amount of ditalini. Roughly 1.5 oz of ditalini per 2 c of soup, if you're heating it up later for individual servings. It will expand to about double it's size when it's cooked.