Cream of Tomato Soup

If your notion of tomato soup is the gunk that Campbell’s makes then this recipe is going to blow you away.  As far as the work to payoff ratio goes, you really get a bang for your buck here.  Seriously, the first time I made this I was shocked at how amazing it tasted.  You’ve got to try this.  I’ve adapted the recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.  (I highly recommend this cookbook if you don’t already have it)

Cream of Tomato Soup

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion diced
  • 1 carrot diced
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried)
  • 3 (14.5 oz.) cans tomatoes diced or whole
  • 1 cup cream or half and half (I think you know the right choice here)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan or stockpot and add the diced onion and carrot.  Saute until soft and add thyme.  Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Add tomatoes and simmer for ~15 minutes.  Add cream and puree using an immersion blender, standard blender, food processor, or food mill.  Serve hot.

We like this with a good ole’ grilled cheese sandwich.

. . . and we’re back

You’re not truly a blogger until you start at least one of your posts apologizing for not having posted in some time.  Well . . . I’m sorry.  The dissertation has taken priority.

Over the past month I’ve been a bit lax in the kitchen, but I did take a few photos with the intention of posting about what I was cooking.  Since I’ve fallen behind I’ll just throw them all in this one post.

First, about a month ago we visited the new Harmon’s grocery store in Draper near the point of the mountain.  Wow.  They have everything.  We got gelato from their gelato bar (good not great) and I bought a variety of olives from their olive bar.  The produce was varied and abundant.  I decided to try some organic golden beets.  I roasted them in the crock pot and then sliced them and dressed them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and chopped pecans.

Beets before

Sorry the photo is a bit out of focus.  I need a tripod (and a better camera).  The beets were great.  Some good feta cheese would have made them better.

We also had some fun with bacon recently.

Bacon Baskets

Bacon Baskets

These make for great BLTs.  I had to stick all kinds of toothpicks to hold them together.  A better way to do this would have been to leave the slices at full length instead of cutting them in half and weaving a 6 x 6 sheet of bacon.  The short pieces really wanted to come apart.  I also recommend baking the bacon on a rack set in a sheet pan since this will keep the bacon flat and will not require flipping (tempting the weave to fall apart).  The big sheet can then be cut into 4 sandwich size squares.

BLT

BLT Closeup

Yes, they did taste as good as they look.  I put a little blue cheese on mine.  You can’t beat the combo of blue cheese and bacon!

With this same meal I made some agua de limón, a.k.a. limeade.  For each serving combine a cup of water, juice and zest of one lime, about 5-10 mint leaves, and 2 tablespoons of sugar in the blender.  Blend it all up and then pour it through a fine-mesh strainer.  Serve over ice and garnish with mint.

Agua de Limon con Mint

Fresh Homemade Yogurt

Finished Yogurt

Yogurt is an amazing food—it’s delicious, good for you, and a great ingredient with tons of applications.  The fact is that when you make it at home it tastes better, is even better for you, and you’ll use it more (because you have it).  I first made yogurt following David Fankhauser’s directions and I recommend that you check them out, but I’ve adapted the process as I’ll describe below.

The idea behind yogurt is controlled bacterial fermentation.  If you just leave your milk out on the counter, chances are that you’ll be infiltrated with bacteria that won’t be nice to your milk and they’ll crowd out any good bacteria.  So the trick here is to eliminate the bad bacteria and to give the good bacteria an environment in which to thrive.  The key to pulling that off is good sanitation of your equipment, heating the milk to kill the bacteria present, and then holding the milk at a temperature at which yogurt making bacteria thrive.

First gather all your equipment.  I use 4 quart -size mason jars (along with a 1 cup jar for starting my next batch) and make a gallon of yogurt at a time, but you could do this for a single quart (4 cups).  You’ll also want a pyrex liquid measuring cup (at least 2 cups), a spoon for stirring, a wisk, an a nonreactive pot with a thick bottom (if you don’t trust your pot to distribute your stoves heat evenly and gently then you’ll want to use a double boiler), and a candy thermometer (sensitive from 0 to 225° F [-10 to 110 C]).  Sterilize your jars, lids, and any metal or glass utensils by boiling them in a large pot with about an inch of water for five minutes with the lid on.  You can do this in batches if it won’t all fit.  Plastic utensils can be sterilized using antibacterial dish soap, or better yet with a soak in water with a splash of chlorine bleach followed by a thorough rinse.

 Disinfecting

The ingredients are easy: milk and plain yogurt with live active cultures listed on the ingredients.  Concensus on the web supports using Dannon plain yogurt as a starter, but feel free to experiment with what is available to you.  The best yogurt will list only milk and cultures as ingredients.  I used Mountain High yogurt which makes a fairly thick and creamy yogurt.  You’ll find that the types of bacteria from different yogurts will bring about subtly different results.  As far as the milk goes, I highly recommend that you use whole milk and not less than 2%.  The fat helps make a creamier yogurt and when it drops below 2% it will be grainy.  It should go without saying that you want the freshest milk and yogurt possible—don’t even open the containers until just before you are ready to measure them out.

Measure out your milk into your pot, attach your thermometer, and slowly heat over low to medium until the milk reaches 185-195°F.  Be sure to stir regularly to ensure that the milk does not burn and stick to the bottom of the pot. What you are doing here is scalding the milk, which kills any bad bacteria that might be present in the milk, improves the flavor of the finished product, and makes for a thicker yogurt.  I’ve skipped this step before and ended up with a tasty, but runnier yogurt that was less successful at propogating subsequent batches.  Be careful not to let the milk exceed 195º because if it boils it will make a mess and your yogurt will have a “cooked” flavor.  As you begin heating the milk, turn your oven on to 200°.

 Heating Milk

From here you want to cool down the milk to the temperature at which you are going to incubate the yogurt.  Do this by creating an ice water bath in your sink or a large container and set the pot in.  Stirring the milk and stirring the ice water will lead to faster heat transfer and cool the milk faster.  The yogurt bacteria die at temperatures over 130° F and aren’t very active below 98° F.  I recommend cooling just to 130° F because the milk will continue to drop a few degrees after you remove the pot from the water.  We’re shooting for incubation at 122° F. 

 Cooling Milk

Once you hit 130° F, take the pot out and set it on the counter.  Pour 1 cup of the milk into a 2 cup Pyrex measuring cup and then add your yogurt to fill it to the 2 cup mark.  (This additional cup of volume goes into the 1 cup jar as a starter for the next batch)  Blend the yogurt with the milk in the cup with the wisk and then pour this into the pot of milk, stirring it thoroughly throughout the milk with the wisk.  Working quickly, pour the innoculated milk into your jars and put the lids on immediately.  Turn off the oven, place the jars in the oven, close the door, and turn on the oven light.  What you are looking for is to maintain the heat around the yogurt close to 122° F without exceeding 130° F. 

I find that by switching out my oven light with a 40 watt bulb and doing a preheat at 200° F it works out just right.  If you have a gas oven, the pilot light may complicate things.  You can test your oven by placing a jar filled with water in the oven and measuring the temperature of the water each hour for several hours (a remote probe thermometer is handy here).  Alternatively, you can follow Fankhauser’s method of putting the jars in a cooler and filling it to 3/4 the height of the jars with water heated to 122° F, checking occasionally and adding hot water as needed.  Absent these resources, wrap your jars in towels or blankets to insulate their current temperature.

Now you wait.  The bacteria are reproducing, consuming the milk sugars, and producing acid.  After 3-4 hours the yogurt should have gelled.  If it hasn’t, let it sit longer, up to 12 hours.  The longer the yogurt incubates the more tart it will taste.  The photo below is of yogurt incubated for 4 hours.  At this stage it is thick and creamy with just a hint of tartness.  The milk flavor really shines through.  6 hours takes you to the typical tartness you find in grocery store yogurt (but with superior overall flavor).  If I’m making it just for me, I usually go for 8-10 hours, but my wife likes it less tart.

 Finished Yogurt

It’s not a bad idea to let the yogurt sit on the counter to cool for about an hour before you put it in the refrigerator, since the jars would heat up everything in the refrigerator initially.  Remember that the bacteria will still be working during that time, so factor it in as you consider your preferred tartness.  Once the yogurt is fully chilled in the refrigerator it is ready to eat.

I highly recommend that you try it plain.  Discover what yogurt really tastes like when it is not turned into candy.  I’ve learned to love plain yogurt.  As you develop a taste for real yogurt, you will have a better gauge of how much fruit and sweetener you might add when you do use them.  A spoonful of jam is an easy way to do fruit and sugar thing.  A better way is to add your favorite fresh fruit and honey or agave nectar to taste.  I once added the juice and zest of an orange along with a teaspoon of honey to a bowl of yogurt and had one of the most sublime breakfasts in recent memory.

Later this week I’ll post how to make greek style yogurt, along with several other ways of using your yogurt.

Restaurant Review: Pizzeria Seven Twelve

712 chefs

Pizzeria Seven Twelve may very well be the best restaurant in Utah Valley.  I’d maybe expand that geographic region, but they’re all about local food so why bother.  On their website, the chefs/owners (Joe and Colton) explain that the restaurant arose out of the desire for sustainability.  They say they want to change the way restaurants run.  I say “let them!”  These guys know what they are doing.  The best part is that I can afford to eat there.  No food snobbery here.

On the wall hangs a quote from Alice Waters: “When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.”  The best and tastiest ingredients, as Waters has so persuasively demonstrated, are most often found locally and in season.  It might be a bit of a hard sell that you can find such wonderful local ingredients in Utah Valley since most local food production is for export, but these guys have done a great job of making use of what’s available.  Hopefully their success will persuade more local food producers to make high quality seasonal food available to restaurants and consumers alike.

712 chefs

One of the great features of the restaurant is the wood fired oven imported from Europe (I guess we haven’t yet perfected those locally yet) where they do virtually all of the restaurant’s cooking.  As you can see, the oven is out front and you get to see the chefs living it up as they do their thing.  Both times I’ve been there they’ve really seemed to be enjoying themselves. 

In their quest for fresh and fine ingredients they do some of their own food production, making their own sausage as well as mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.

Their dinner menu consists of “A Little Something . . .” (not quite appetizers, not quite entrees), “Greens . . .” (salad), “Pizza . . .”, and “Sweet . . .” (dessert).  My wife and I have found that ordering one thing from each category to share leaves us perfectly satisfied.  Well, almost each category.  We haven’t yet gotten dessert–we fill up on the savory stuff.  We’ll have to pace ourselves next time.

From “A Little Something . . .” you HAVE to order the short ribs. 

Shortribs

Try it all, but don’t miss these.  They cook them overnight in a big pot sitting in the embers of the previous day’s fire.  They are served over a square of perfect polenta and topped with horseradish cream an au jus.  The meat is so tender that my wife and I ignore our knives and just use our forks to pull off a piece.  The horseradish cream adds just a hint of tangingess and will win over anyone who thinks they do not like horseradish (like my wife).  The polenta is the best I’ve had–I’m pretty sure there are tiny bits of fresh corn in there along with the coarse corn meal.  This is a dish you will wake up in the middle of the night craving.

Tonight we ordered the fresh house made mozarella salad.

 Mozz and greens

It is very simply prepared with the cheese over bitter greens and breadcrumb croutons, all dressed with a lemon olive oil vinaigrette.  Clearly the cheese is the star of this dish and it really shines.  A fair dose of salt and the sweetness of the lemons mellows out the bitterness of the greens and brings the flavors together, while the bread crumbs provide a nice crunchy texture.

We also got their pizza topped with prosciutto, soppressata (a thin sliced sausage-type meat), garlic, and tomato.  It was divine.

 712 pizza

See that char on the crust?  That is exactly what you are looking for in a good pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven.  Don’t you dare send it back.  I think that my favorite thing about this pizza was that every element of it was superb.  I would take a bite and be struck the exquisite flavor of the tomato, noting how the other ingredients compliment it so well.  But the next bite would feature the meat in just the same way, then the garlic, then the cheese, then the crust.  It was perfect.

The tragedy of the night was that we didn’t get dessert.  All of their desserts look amazing.  We love panna cotta and are set on trying that one, but the brownie sundae and the fruit cobbler look just as good.

Tonight was our second visit to the restaurant and we were both happy (because we like the philosophy of seasonality) and sad to see that some of the tasty items we had last time were not on the menu.  The particular stand-out was the sweet potato off “A Little Something . . .”  It features roasted bite sized pieces of sweet potato served tossed with spinach (barely wilted by the potatoes), matchsticks of thick cut bacon, pecan halves, and a vinaigrette.  So simple and so delicious. 

We’ve actually made our own copycat version of it several times to rave reviews (although it still lacked that certain something that it had at the restaurant).  Try it, you’ll like it. 

  • Peel 2 sweet potatoes and cut them into pieces
  • Toss with olive oil and roast in oven at 350-400° (or 712°?) until the edges just begin to brown
  • cut several pieces of thick cut bacon (the best you can find) into matchsticks and cook them until nicely browned.
  • As the bacon begins to cook, toss in a handful of pecans.  Be generous here.
  • Put the bacon and pecans on a paper towel to drain the fat.
  • Toss it all over several handfuls of baby spinach and dress with a basic olive oil vinaigrette (1:4 vinegar:oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, mustard if you like it)

I’d love it if we could get some advice from the folks at P712 on where to get good local ingredients for home cooking in Utah Valley (and any tips or corrections to the recipe if they’re feeling generous).  If we don’t hear from them in the comments here I’ll have to ask them the next time I’m there.

Be sure to check out their website as well as their blog.  This food is based on some really good food philosophy and you’ll want to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

English Muffins with Five Minute a Day Dough

English Muffins on display

This morning I was craving something more than cereal or toast for breakfast and it struck me that I had everything I needed for english muffins.  Here’s how you do it:

First, you want to check my post on Herzberg and Francois’ book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, where you’ll find their basic recipe. Cut off a hunk of dough (preferably dough that has had at least a day to develop flavor in the fridge), cut it into pieces, and shape them into 3-4 inch disks, about 1/4-1/2 inches thick.  Let them rise for about 20 minutes.  

Muffins shaped and rising 

Preheat a cast iron skillet, a griddle, or the next best thing you’ve got (everyone has a frying pan, right?) over low heat.  Sprinkle it with course corn meal (I used polenta), and get your muffins in the pan. 

Muffins on the griddle 

Cook for about 10 minutes, turning them every few minutes.  They should be a deep brown on both sides and the edges should be clearly cooked.  As you can see, they get big and puffy as they cook.  Split them with a fork and slather them with butter.  They are superior in every way to the muffins you get at the store, and they’re super easy.  My wife thought she didn’t like english muffins until she tried these.  I don’t know why they left this one out of the cookbook.

Community Food Co-op of Utah

All of my local readers need to know about this.  The Community Food Co-op of Utah is an organization that provides a monthly opportunity for people in Utah to purchase a share of groceries at a greatly recuded rate (made possible by bulk purchasing).  Although the primary focus is to make low-cost food available to those in need, they seem to do a pretty good job of getting food that is relatively local. 

The full share they are offering for the month of May at $21 includes 2 lbs. chicken thighs, (2) 6oz. top sirloin steaks, 2 lbs. pork spareribs (bone-in), 1 lb. lean ground beef (85/15), fresh fruit (3 varieties), fresh vegetables (5 varieties), Stone Ground’s whole wheat bread, and 16 oz. rice.  Not bad, eh?  They also offer half shares with fewer items and lower quantity and harvest shares that leave out the meat.

The great part is that not only can everyone join the co-op, but it actually benefits them and the community to have more people participate (regardless of income level).  This is because more co-op members means more leverage with bulk purchasing.  Also, the co-op requires that members give 2 hours of service to anyone outside of their families (including, but not limited to the co-op) for each month that they purchase from the co-op.  So, even if your grocery budget is doing fine you can serve the community and save some money while you are at it by joining the co-op.

In my face

Dandelion closeup

One of my recent hobbies has been homebrewing my own sodas.  I’ve long been on a quest to find a truly fiery hot ginger ale and realized that I was going to have to make it myself.  I found David Fankhauser’s recipe and instructions for homemade ginger ale (check out his pages on cheesemaking as well) and have had consistent success following his directions. 

However, a few months ago I got excited by some recipes for root beer that actually use roots, bark, seeds, and fruit instead of a prepared extract.  To my delight, I found that Stephen Cresswell has written a whole book of recipes for all kinds of sodas that are homebrewed from scratch, so I bought it along with a gallon jug, dozen 16 oz bail-top bottles, and some ale yeast.  The first recipe I tried was Licorice Root Beer.  I must not have gotten the yeast properly activated because it never developed carbonation.  To bolster my confidence, I then went back to trusty old ginger ale, but this time used Cresswell’s recipe which involves boiling and straining the ginger.  It was fabulous, especially after a few days chilling in the fridge.

Well, this had me feeling confident again and so I decided to really go all out for my next batch and take on Cresswell’s recipe for Dandelion Champagne.  Dandelions have been blossoming all over during the last two weeks and this last Tuesday I finally found time to go and gather the gallon of blossoms that the recipe calls for.  It ended up taking longer than I had expected and I didn’t have time to brew up the soda right then, so I put my gallon of blossoms in the fridge hoping that would keep them fresh enough.

When I got home later than night I was discouraged to find that the blossoms had wilted and closed up quite a bit, so I was seeing at least as much green as yellow.  Having already invested a couple of hours gathering them I pressed forward with the recipe.  I was concerned that the recipe said nothing about washing the blossoms and I didn’t want to wash away any pollen or other flavorful elements that might add to the soda.  Against my better judgment I left them unwashed.

Fast-forward to Wednesday evening.  My wife and I were sitting in our living room when she announced that she could hear my soda.  Sure enough there was a faint hissing of pressure slowly escaping one of the bottles.  I assumed that I had a faulty seal on my hands, so I found the offending bottle and popped the top.  Froosh!  I was nailed in the face with a geyser of soda propelled by the extreme pressure of the gas that had built up.  I ran the bottle into the kitched as fast as I could while it continued to erupt everywhere.  Although the recipe said to give at least 3 days for the carbonation to build, my batch was already dangerously over-carbonated in less than 24 hours.  I ended up having to take the rest of the bottles into the bathroom where I opened them into the bathtub, each with a similar explosion of golden carbonation.

I’m not sure if it was the unwashed blossoms that contributed extra critters, some extra happy yeast, or what, but that carbonation was out of control.  I’m just glad we heard the one bottle leaking gas when we did or the bottles would likely have begun exploding after a bit longer.  This recipe may be my white whale, but I’m determined to try it again.  Next time I will get help gathering the blossoms, wash them thoroughly, and use them as quickly as possible after harvesting.  I’ll let you know how it goes.