It’s the Real Thing! (with apologies to Coca-Cola)

I picked up my glass bottle of real dairy buttermilk Friday afternoon from Bergey’s with no particular intentions other than finally owning a quart of the real thing. I snugged it contentedly in my fridge between the organic 2% milk and the strawberry keffir.

Later, while putting some other groceries in the deep freeze, I serendipitously spied a pound package of the homemade sage sausage a friend of mine makes every year. I bought five pounds of links and five of ground in the fall but thought I’d used it all. It was obviously the cooking gods’ way of telling me I needed to make buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy before church on Sunday.

I woke at 7:30 – earlier than usual – perhaps due to the anticipation of making good biscuits for a change (but more likely because I had indigestion from dinner’s homemade baked beans – I got a little heavy handed with the Texas Pete). Grabbing Cook’s Illustrated’s 2004 annual, I opened to the Mile-High Biscuits recipe in July/August p. 6-7.

I carefully weighed the flour and put it and the other dry goods to the food processor for a quick spin and added the butter and pulsed for a few seconds more. Then, there was no avoiding it – it was time to open the buttermilk. “Shake well,” it said on the outside of the bottle, so I shook it…and nothing. Nothing happened – no sloshing, no mixing, no glugging. Opening the lid, I peered inside the bottle and saw a thick creamy substance more resembling sour cream filling the top of the bottle. I closed the lid and shook REALLY hard. Nothing. So, I opened the bottle again and shook out the requisite cup and a half into my 2-cup Pyrex. Plop, plop, plop. Good grief! I’d forgotten how thick the real thing was. I used to drink this as a kid? I was a little scared but plopped some into a cup as well and took a swig. There was the rich, creamy, zingy buttermilk flavor of my childhood that had been completely missing from the cultured stuff I’d used to make the cinnamon rolls.

After mixing the buttermilk with the flour and forming the biscuits, I put them in the oven and waited. Anticipation got the better of me, so I turned on the oven light and peered through the window. It looked like success. The buttermilk played nicely with the baking powder and baking soda to make tall, fluffy looking biscuits. Would they likewise taste good? I poured my second cup of coffee and waited; in a few minutes the truth would be told.

After they’d cooled a bit, my youngest and I gently broke one open. Steam brought the scrumptious smell to our noses as we each took a bite. Her eyes closed with bliss, “Mmmmmm.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. They were light, moist, flavorful, and delicious!

I’d finally cracked the biscuit barrier. Maybe I would skip the gravy - it almost seemed a crime.

Mile-High Biscuits 
10 ounces flour
1T double-acting baking powder
1T sugar
1t salt
1/2t baking soda
4T cold unsalted butter cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1.5 cups cold buttermilk

~Turn oven to 500. Spray 9" round cakepan and 1/4 cup measring cup with nonstick spray.
~In food processor, pulse dry ingredients to combine - about 6 1-second pulses. Scatter butter on flour and pulse for 8 to 10 additional 1-second pulses until mixture resembles course cornmeal.  Transfer to medium bowl and gently stir in buttermilk avoiding overmixing (dough will be very wet and slightly lumpy)
~Sprinkle 1c flour onto large cookie sheet.  Using 1/4 cup measuring cup, scoop dough onto cookie sheet in nine even portions.  Dust each piece of dough with flour from sheet and gently pick up and form into a rough ball shaking off excess flour.  Arrange eight balls around perimeter of pan and one in the middle. Carefully brush tops with 2T melted butter.
~Bake for five minutes and reduce oven temp to 450.  Bake for an additional 15 minutes or until tops are golden brown.  Cool in pan for 2 minutes.  Remove from pan and place on clean kitchen towel and pull apart.  Cool for an additional five minutes and enjoy!

Steak Surprise

I recently picked up a family pack of steaks on sale. As a rule, I shop sales – steaks were on sale – a really good sale (4lbs for $11), so I bought a big box of individually packaged, flash frozen strip steaks. However, I forgot another of my crucial food shopping rules, Read the ingredients!

It was meat, so why should I have to read the ingredients? Meat should contain MEAT and nothing else. Alas, when I thawed four beautiful slabs of beef for dinner tonight, my nose detected a smell that should not have been there. I grabbed the box and spotted the ingredient list. Sure enough. I saw the following:

"Containing up to 10% of a solution of water, less than 2% salt, sodium phosphate, dextrose, hydrolyzed corn and yeast protein (with hydrolyzed wheat gluten), sugar, garlic and onion, maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavors, natural grill flavor (from vegetable oil)"

What the heck?! Not only does my 8oz steak have 40 grams of protein, it also has 24% of my RDA of sodium! 580 milligrams of salt have already been injected into my steak. Good thing I noticed that before I seasoned it.

Now, I know many chickens and “self-basting” turkeys are packed with salt (which is why I bought the free range, organic variety this year that contained nothing but turkey) as are many “seasoned” pork loins. Many places are increasingly adding salt solutions to their meat through marinating, needle injecting, and soaking. In fact, I never buy meat from the Super Wal-Mart by my house for several reasons, one of which is because I noticed they also “enhance” most of their beef and pork with a 12% (or more) salt solution. They claim it is to create a “preferred eating experience” by making the meat more tender and flavorful. (Another reason I don’t is because somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I find something fundamentally wrong with buying raw meat in the same store where one can buy a plastic Christmas tree, fishing lures, and underwear. Oh, and I don’t buy jewelry or “intimate apparel” from Wal-Mart either – it’s wrong, just wrong). Speaking of preferred eating experiences, I actually PREFER to add my own salt to my meat or not, and I PREFER to add plain old sodium chloride – not sodium phosphate.

In my humble yet cynical opinion, the manufacturers could care less about our dining experience. Adding salt solution makes the meat heavier, thus we are actually paying more for it, and I see it as a subversive way of preserving the meat to give it a longer shelf life.

So, fellow consumers, there’s yet another reason to read your ingredient lists, know what you are buying, and buy fresh and local whenever possible.

Oh, and if someone wants to explain, “natural grill flavor,” I’m all ears.

What's This Here Sauce?

I was asked to explain “meat muffins” from my earlier post. Nothing fancy - it’s simply meatloaf cooked in a muffin tin. My kids love meatloaf, but I hated to wait and wait for a large loaf to cook and once had the profound thought, “If one can divide quick bread batter into smaller portions and make muffins, why not do the same with meatloaf mixture?” It not only worked - it took only 20 minutes for the little guys to cook at 350 as opposed to an hour or more for the big one. Thus meat muffins were born.

Now, how I make my meatloaf is not an exact science. Ingredients can be any combination of raw egg, homemade bread crumbs, onion, tomato, bulgur wheat, ketchup, salsa and more, but I do always add Worcestershire sauce. I will admit that try as I might, I can’t pronounce it. My grandma used to tell me to say, “What’s-this-here-sauce.”  However, I usually call it, “The stuff in the brown bottle” or “Lea & Perrins” – but I use it in all kinds of dishes and probably go through a paper-wrapped bottle of the stuff a year, so I decided to learn more about it.

“The story of Lea & Perrins® famous Worcestershire Sauce begins in the early 1800s, in the county of Worcester. Returning home from his travels in Bengal, Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the area, was eager to duplicate a recipe he'd acquired. On Lord Sandys's request, two chemists—John Lea and William Perrins made up the first batch of the sauce. Lea and Perrins were not impressed with their initial results. The pair found the taste unpalatable, and simply left the jars in their cellar to gather dust. A few years later, they stumbled across them and decided to taste the contents again. To their delight, the aging process had turned it into a delicious, savory sauce.”

The secret recipe contains mainly anchovies and tamarind as well as a laundry list of other ingredients, spices and “natural flavorings.” Both anchovies and tamarind are used around the world in many different ways as a sort of “season-all” solution for cooking. Both, used in large quantities can be overpowering to the inexperienced palate but, in moderation, can accent a dish nicely. The same goes for Worcestershire sauce.

Tamarind (Tamatindus indica) is the pod of a tree native to Africa but now is mainly cultivated in India. This sweet/sour and tart fruit is widely used throughout Africa, South-east Asia, and South America in curries, chutneys, beverages, candies or even eaten whole when allowed to mature. It is available in dried pod, paste or powder form. (I use the paste when cooking a popular Philippine sour pork soup called Sinigang na Baboy.)

Anchovies, usually found in fillet or paste form in both salted and oil-packed varieties, are more than that stinky little fish used as a pizza topping. Indeed, Caesar salad would not be Caesar salad without anchovies.  Just as my meatloaf, beef stroganoff, Bloody Marys and even Caesar salad (yes, it needs a dash too) would certainly be lacking without Lea & Perrins.

Speaking of which, here is my favorite Caesar salad recipe ala Cooks Illustrated (May/June p12-13, 2002)

2 large eggs
1T plus 2t fresh squeezed lemon juice
1t Worcestershire Sauce
1/4t salt
1/8 fine fresh ground black pepper
1 garlic clove (pressed)
4 flat anchovy fillets, minced (about 1.5t)
1/3c olive oil
2 medium heads romaine (washed, dried and torn)
1/3c grated parmesan (NOT the stuff from the can!)

-Bring two inches water to boil in small pan. Lower eggs into water and cook for 45 seconds. When cool enough to handle, crack open, reserve yolks and discard whites. Add lemon juice, Worcestershire Sauce, salt, pepper, garlic and anchovies to yolks and whisk until smooth. Whisking constantly, add oil in slow, steady stream. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
-Toss lettuce, cheese and dressing to taste. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Thanks to The Spice House for the tamarind picture and information.  Learn more about Lea & Perrins here:

Stupid Buttermilk

I had most of the quart of “cultured” buttermilk left from making those yummy cinnamon rolls and thought I’d use some of it in my mashed potatoes last night. I poured about a cup into my 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup along with some butter and popped it in the microwave for 1 minute. (I love my Pyrex measuring cups - I’m a proud owner of the 4-cup as well. Someday I hope to own the 8-cup but am not sure if I’m ready for such magnificence)

While regular milk, half-and-half, or even cream wouldn’t have minded this heating method, the buttermilk had other ideas. It rebelled - and not just by curdling but by completely separating into clear liquid with a big white jabba-glob floating on the top. Ick!

After I dumped the buttermilk curd and whey down the drain, I slightly, slowly warmed another cup, mixed in 3T of melted butter, some salt and pepper and added the whole mess to three steaming pounds of peeled, cubed, cooked and drained taters. I like my mashed taters “homestyle” (which means lumpy) better than the smooth style although I do own a ricer (it is a major pain to clean but does make super smooth, string-free sweet potato puree for sweet potato pie).

I grabbed my potato masher and began, well, mashing. As I mashed, I noticed white cheesy strings forming in the potatoes. That stupid buttermilk separated again! Although the potatoes were delicious and no one else noticed the string cheese addition to my perfect mashed tater and meat muffin dinner, it bugged me.  Why was the darn buttermilk so sensitive to heat? I decided to find out.

Investigation in my Cook’s Illustrated (Sept/Oct 2004 p.30) taught me that buttermilk does not like being heated above 90 degrees. CI recommends leaving it on the counter to reach room temperature or microwaving on 30-40 seconds at 30% power stirring once or twice. These were good tips but didn’t tell my WHY the buttermilk curdled, so I continued my research.

Buttermilk is thicker, tangier tasting and more acidic than regular milk due to a higher lactic acid content. Regular milk has a pH of 6.7 while “traditional” buttermilk has a pH of 6.4 and “cultured” buttermilk has a lower pH of 6.0 (neutral pH is 7, acids are lower than 7 and bases are greater). In traditional buttermilk, lactic acid is allowed to form naturally through fermentation of the lactose in the milk. Cultured buttermilk has lactic acid added and is cheaper to make and more commonly found in the grocery store. This lactic acid is what makes the milk thicker. It is thicker because the milk has ALREADY BEGUN to clabber (curdle or separate). Bingo! I had my answer.

By the way, if you have a recipe calling for buttermilk and don’t happen to have any buttermilk, you can make your own by adding either vinegar of lemon juice (acids) to regular milk and letting it sit for about five minutes to complete the process. The ratio is typically 1T acid to 1c milk.

Despite the word “butter” in its name, buttermilk is nearly fat free (less than 1% milkfat). The name came from the fact that all of the cream used to make butter had been removed.

AND!! I was very excited this morning to find a source for REAL buttermilk. The good people at Bergey’s Breadbasket in Chesapeake get it in regularly and will set some aside for me next week! (PS – they make AWESOME baked goods – cinnamon rolls, yeast rolls, pies, biscuits – as well as growing their own produce available for sale)  Check them out!

Appetizer - Silly, Funny Food

When I'm not cooking and blogging, I like to poke around on the internet for recipe ideas, culinary history tidbits and new food sources.  I happened to stumble across the following that I would like to share with you because it is just too darn funny to keep to myself.  Enjoy this funny food!  My Food Looks Funny ~ 

A Bad Baker Redeemed

I’ve written before that this self-proclaimed Good Cooker is a Baaaad Baker. I’m serious about being baking impaired but may have found my redemption when I checked out Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking from the library. In this book (I think I might end up purchasing), AB stated good cookers don’t always make good bakers – especially the “throw stuff into a bowl until it tastes good type of cooker” (like me). Exact measures and procedures are a must to ensure success.

When my daughter asked for homemade cinnamon rolls for her birthday (I always tell them I will make ANYTHING they want for their birthdays - luckily no one has yet to ask for a crown rib roast or a chocolate soufflĂ©), I knew it was time to quit putting off the inevitable, stop being intimidated by any recipe containing yeast, and jump into this baking thing feet first. Fortunately, I remember AB had a great overnight cinnamon roll recipe.  It was long, complicated and, yes, intimidating, but I was determined to avoid the whole canned Pillsbury-pop-open-cop-out I'd resorted to in the past.   

I bought the buttermilk, cream cheese and some fresh yeast (I’m superstitious like that – yeast and baking powder get replaced on a regular rotation around here), gathered my other ingredients and went to work. By the way – I used to love buttermilk as a kid and took a big swig of the stuff while I was cooking, and YUCK!

Since it was already 9:00 pm, I realized I’d better get hoofing if the rolls were to be ready to go in the fridge before midnight. With little time to spare and the need to have five “room temperature” eggs, I submerged them in some warmed water to hasten the process. (The 6 ounce measure of room temperature buttermilk was created in much the same manner.) I precisely measured twenty ounces of flour with my kitchen scale and followed all the other steps in the dough-making process to the letter. The result was an absolutely perfect ball of dough that rolled out nicely and behaved on cue. (I must also note that this was the FIRST TIME I ever used the dough hook that came with my now ten-year-old KitchenAid® mixer.)

Next came the fun part – stuffing, rolling and cutting. I found rubbing the dough with softened butter to be much easier and practical than basting it with runny, melted stuff. In retrospect, I also decided 8 ounces of brown sugar was way too much – at least for my taste. However, at the time I used it all in keeping with my vow to follow the recipe exactly but found the finished product to be a little on the sweet side. After the cinnalog was rolled, pinched, and gently stretched, I “cut” it apart – not with a serrated knife as the recipe states - but with dental floss (plain not minty, please). This method neatly severed off perfect rolls without mashing or otherwise deforming the cinnamon spirals.

A sit in the fridge overnight and a quick bake and frost in the morning produced some of the best cinnamon rolls I’d ever eaten and certainly the best ones I’d ever baked! I am far from calling myself a Good Baker, but I do have to say…Cinnabon EAT YOUR HEART OUT!

Overnight Cinnamon Rolls courtesy of Alton Brown:

Here’s a video too if you happen to be a visual learner like me:

Ok, ok, ok

So, I went on vacation, broke my foot (technically tore a tendon) and can't put any weight on it and consequently haven't been grocery shopping since January, and had to study for finals (not necessarily in that order) and have subsequently neglected my blog since the end of March.

And, boy, did I hear about it.

So, I’m back. I’ll be writing more tasty tidbits, culinary craftings and vegetable ventings – especially now that fresh and local produce is coming in – stay tuned.

(PS – I made the most delicious strawberry daiquiris last night from fresh-picked strawberries, golden rum, a bit of grenadine and some ice. Delicious!)