Monday, September 27, 2010

Hanker for a hunk of cheese

In conceiving of this project, I ran headlong against a major problem.


According to my rules, if the food item is within the realm of possibility of being made at home without investing in thousands of dollars of equipment or requiring months to prepare (bread: yes; olive oil: no), I have to make it myself. I can make fresh cheese, such as queso fresco, cottage cheese, chevre and even mozzarella, but I can't make harder cheeses than this.

I'm sure that if I had a spare refrigerator, a cheese press and some supplies, I could make an edible cheddar, jack or swiss cheese. Jack cheese might even be ready within the three-month window of the project. But the budget for this little experiment has been exhausted with all the other equipment and supplies I need.

So none of our staple cheeses for the length of the project. No  swiss and mushroom omelettes. No American-style tacos topped with thin, airy curls of cheddar. No gooey cheese enchiladas, no salad topped with crumbles of blue cheese, no slivers of manchego with kalamata olives and a glass of red wine. And pasta without Parmesan? As the song goes, "On top of spaghetti, all covered with CHEESE..."

Frankly,  I panicked. Inside my head is a little kid saying, "No no no no no no no!" I'm a cheese addict. If there's no cheese in the fridge, there's no food in the house.

I didn't realize how much I had come to rely on semi-hard and hard cheese until faced with the prospect of going without. I can't put it off any longer. But oh, how I'll miss them, all those lovely pressed and aged cheeses.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What's the deal with Hatch green chiles?

I was curious. Here's what I found out.

Every year in late summer, people in the know get twitchy awaiting the harvest of the world-famous Hatch green chiles. It's not a specific type of chile, in the way a habenero is different from a jalapeno. The term refers to chiles grown in Hatch, New Mexico. Hatch chiles are usually green, but sometimes a fully ripened red. They can be mild, with just a hint of fire, all the way up to milk-guzzling, Buster Poindexter hothothot. Anaheim chiles, grown in California, are direct descendants of the chiles grown in Hatch, but they aren't the same beast.

Gilroy is synonymous with garlic,  Castroville is the artichoke center of the world, and Hatch is the chile pepper Mecca. The place has terroir. Something special slips under the skin of the humble green chile when it takes root in the high-elevation soil of Hatch. The warm days and cool nights tease out deeper flavor, more complex overtones, gives them that je ne sais quoi that makes aficionados crave these long, fat pods like some people crave chocolate.

Hatch chiles are not usually eaten raw. Their charm only truly comes out when softened and mellowed with heat: stuffed with cheese and fried or baked into chile rellenos;  roasted over a fire or blackened under a broiler, papery skins peeled off, and seeds and membranes removed. These peppers hold up to the harsh conditions of the freezer with aplomb, with little flavor and texture lost to the cold. And this is why people line up at the end of summer to buy 30, 50, even 100 lbs of Hatch chiles, to roast and freeze for use throughout the year.
I bought a modest ten pounds without any specific designs on how to use them. I broiled my chiles, flipping over once,  until the skins browned and blackened, put them in a bowl and covered them with a towel to give the steam a chance to loosen the skins. When they had cooled enough to handle, I put some directly into freezer bags without peeling or deseeding them. I read that they freeze a bit better when left intact, but that they actually get hotter in the freezer over time due to contact with seeds and membrane. That's fine with us.

For the remainder, I peeled away the skin, scraped out the seeds and inner membranes, and chopped them into a fine dice. As I was bagging them for the freezer, I tasted the soup simmering on the stove, made up of vegetables I'd just picked from my garden: chard, baby potatoes, tomatoes and green onions. The flavor was good, but lacked dimension. On a whim, I tossed in a handful of green chile. Suddenly, the soup went 3-D. The chiles added a meaty depth, a pleasant fruitiness, and just a tinge of heat.

The next morning, I added a few tablespoons to a chipotle sausage frittata for my husband Nick to take to work. He said I'd outdone myself. Damn, I thought. At this rate, my stash wasn't going to last the month. I had better snatch up more fresh Hatch chiles before they're gone...if the other Hatch addicts have left any behind for me.

A bit of chile trivia: One medium-sized fresh green chile has as much Vitamin C as six oranges. Also, hot peppers trigger the body to rev up its metabolism and burn fat.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cornbread from Extreme Scratch

Last year, I grew a small amount of heirloom corn in my backyard. Bloody Butcher is a dent-type corn that can be eaten fresh, or dried and used as hominy or milled into cornmeal. I hung the ears up to dry, in the hopes of using them when I was able to acquire a grain mill. Now with the arrival of my NutriMill, I was finally able to put it to use.

Dent corn is so named because the kernels develop a dent in them as they dry, because the inside part shrinks but the outside does not. Here's one of my ears of corn demonstrating this.  

With very little effort, I was able to strip the dried corn off the cobs by hand:

The NutriMill grain mill was easy to use, and produced a medium-grit flour at the setting I used.

Freshly milled Bloody Butcher cornmeal

I also milled a bit of hard red winter wheat, and made cornbread using corn to wheat in a 3-1 ratio. Eggs, buttermilk, salt, baking powder, melted butter and  NO SUGAR. Oh, how I hate sweetened cornbread. People started adding sugar to cornbread when they stopped using fresh-milled cornmeal, because the oil in cornmeal goes rancid so quickly and the meal loses its sweetness.

Skillet cornbread

I like my cornbread to be twice as thick, so for the next batch, I'll use a smaller cast-iron pan. The crumb was surprisingly tender, resembling that of a muffin, even though I used mostly cornmeal. I'll try milling the corn on the coarsest setting next time, as well, to see how the consistency changes. It has a deep corn flavor with a flavor profile that's decidedly different from standard yellow corn, a touch of natural sweetness, and not a hint of bitterness. It's so good, you don't even need to put butter on it.