Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Recipe: Preserved Lemons and Limes

Even though I enjoy experimenting with different ferments, I felt a little strange about this one. For those that don't know, preserved lemons and limes are preserved in salt. Like most fermented foods, the color dulls and the liquid becomes cloudy.

But the peel also becomes softened. You can eat the peel.

As someone who finds the taste of lemons and limes to be a bit overwhelming, I thought about skipping this one.

But articles kept popping up about it. I saw a lovely article on NPR about preserved lemons and how they should be preserved. Phickle exclaimed that preserved lemons were gold and could be used in almost any dish, from Middle Eastern to Italian. But I think what really convinced me was when Food in Jars pureed the preserved lemons for a versatile lemon sauce.

Because while I don't make a lot of Middle Eastern cuisine or drink salty Thai lemonade, I could really use some lemon sauce on hand for recipes that call for lemon juice or lemon zest. Because I rarely have any on hand, and when I do buy lemons, I always end up wasting part of them.

So I headed down to the organic store to pick up some lemons. I decided to do limes while I was at it, which was a bad idea. It was snowing and freezing outside and while I was preparing the limes, I just really wanted to make guacamole and margaritas. (It should warm up soon, right?!)

Anyway, I highly recommend these! I finally tried the peel last night and it was surprisingly delicious. I don't know if I would munch on lemon peels as a snack, but I can definitely see myself slicing them and sticking them in pasta. I think at some point I'll blend everything into a paste, but for now I love the juice and the peels. I especially love that I have lemons and limes on hand now!

Of course you can use your preserved lemons anywhere you use regular lemons and lemon juice: in salad dressings, stews, dips, pastas, etc.

I wrote the recipe below for lemons, but it's the same for limes.

5 lemons, or however many will fit in your jar
1-3 more lemons, for the extra juice
Lots of sea salt

Place about a tablespoon of sea salt in the bottom of your jar.

Clean your lemons.

Slice the tops and bottoms off of the lemons.

Take a knife and cut an X shape into them about 3/4 of the way down - however be careful not to cut through the lemon entirely. Everything should still be connected.

Liberally salt the exposed flesh of the lemon. Place the salted lemon into the jar.

(In theory you should remove the seeds, but I gave up after removing a few. I can easily pick around them.)

Take a wooden spoon and gently mash the lemon in the jar. You're trying to juice the salted lemon and also make room for other lemons.

Repeat the above process, cramming as many lemons into the jar as you can.

Once your jar is full, squeeze the juice of the remaining lemons into it. You want the lemon peels underneath the juice.

Place a lid on your jar. Shake it once a day - and  remember to push the peels back under the lemon juice.

Leave it out for about a month (shaking it daily). The juice will thicken and begin to look cloudy. The peels will begin to soften and lose their bright color.

You can leave it out at room temperature or place it in the fridge if you'd prefer. If you leave it out, just remember to make sure that the lemon peels are covered.

And enjoy! You have lots of lemons on hand for quite awhile!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Guess who has a sourdough starter!!

I recently acquired a sourdough starter from a friend, and by the highlight of my week.

I tried creating my own sourdough starter several times last summer, but consistently ended up killing the starter somehow around day 3. I convinced myself that I was not ready to begin caring for ferments daily and so I waited.

In the meantime I acquired milk kefir grains and they were so much work. They really do need constant (or at least daily) attention, but the result is wonderful tasting kefir so it's worth it. Perhaps sourdough starter would also be worth it?

And it really is!

For those who don't know, or those who are considering cutting out grains, sourdough can be a wonderful addition in your life. Here's a really quick summary:

Basically, sourdough starters contain natural yeasts (and not just one type of yeast like the packets in the supermarket), which is really important because the yeasts create enzymes to pre-digest the grain. Because it's also fermented, you get the bacteria in there eating the sugars and starches. The bacteria also activates that break down phytic acid, which is what makes eating grains so tough on your stomach. It also produces acetic acid, which creates the "sour" part of sourdough bread - which helps the bread store longer, preventing mold.*

So if your stomach hurts when you eat a sandwich or you're wondering if you should cut out gluten**, start making your own bread and the negative effects should go away. I'm not going into too many details just because there are SO many wonderful lists of benefits already out there (and linked below), but I will say it's really changed my life in such a great way.

So far, I've used my starter to make bread, pizza crust, pie crust, donuts, and I'm looking forward to continuing to experiment. While it does sometimes require a bit of planning ahead (for example, if you want to bake a loaf of bread you need to start the day before), it doesn't really require THAT much more planning than using store bought yeast and it tastes much better. Best of all, I don't have weird stomach cramps after eating that I normally get after munching on store bought bread.

(You can see my sourdough starter in the container in the top right - so easy to store!)

I use the basic no-knead sourdough loaf recipe from Breadtopia. It's really simple. Just mix and let it set. You're supposed to move it a bit - change the plastic wrap covering to a damp cloth and use fancy equipment like a bread proofer and a dutch oven.

I do not have the expensive equipment and it comes out great. I've also forgotten about it and not done any of the steps - just popped it in the oven after 24 hours, and it came out perfectly. A key step for me is pre-heating the oven to 500 degrees WITH some cast iron dish in there and then placing the bread in for its time. I can't remember if that's in the instructional video, but it works really well for me.

The pizza dough and donuts were all prepped and ready to go with only 10 minutes of resting. You can't argue with that! Plus, you know, they both tasted amazing. A lot of times you can't really even tell a difference, which is not always the case when you start using different flours (i.e. rice and wheat flours).

The best part is that if I only want to do one loaf a week, I just pop my starter in the fridge and let it rest. (If you leave it on the counter, you should feed it daily and, you know, use it daily.)

Do you have sourdough starter? Have you thought about getting one?

*Read more about the science behind sourdough starters at Simple Bites, Cookus Interruptus, and Real Food Forager.
**While some people with gluten sensitivities can eat and enjoy sourdough bread, you should do so under the care of a medical professional. Not because I said it might be okay.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Surprise Gardening When All Other Efforts Fail

I really want to grow plants here in the city. I don't get a ton of light so it's a bit difficult. I don't have roof access or a balcony. I'm not opposed to using the fire escape, but other people are... I also have cats so I can't have anything on the window sills. That leaves hanging pots and I have several in each window!

But nothing seems to grow. I've tried growing herbs from seeds. They tend to sprout and get about 2-3 inches tall. I feel like a proud mama and then... they die.

Thinking the problem was that I can't grow from seeds, I bought healthy looking plants. They lived a bit longer, but ultimately they died as well.

I can't say that nothing is growing in my apartment however. I have two accidental plants (and one bonsai tree that's taking over my hallway).

First up is my little lemon tree. I can't remember if this pot originally held a pepper plant or a bean plant, but regardless, it just had plant remains. One night I was chopping lemons and, on a whim, I decided to throw all of my lemon seeds into the pot.

I continued to water the pot, in case my original plant came back to life. It didn't. But! A week or two or three later, I checked and saw a bunch of tiny seedlings popping up from the lemon seeds!

(In case you're thinking of recreating this, I've heard that lemon seeds need damp soil to grow.)

I've been told lemon trees are bad luck and I should get rid of them, but I'm very proud of my little plants. I have no idea if they'll even produce fruit - but it made it through the winter in front of a cracked window so hopefully it will thrive this summer when it heats up.

Another surprise plant in my apartment was recently identified thanks to a friend. Again, I tend to water my empty pots in case a little seed suddenly decides to stop being dormant. And so this one did. As it was nowhere near anything I've planted, I was pretty stumped for a good while and because it turned such bright colors, I was momentarily afraid it was poisonous.

I think it's in the amaranth family and most likely a celosia. If it is a celosia, they can be used medicinally for worms, blood diseases, mouth sores, and eye problems. So. I've got that covered. The leaves are supposed to be very nutritious so I might try eating some since it just continues to grow.

Do you have any mystery plants? Any indoor gardening tips for the gardening-challenged?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Recipe: Spicy Brown Mustard from Scotch Ale

Mustard is a new friend of mine. Growing up I hated it - or at least I hated yellow mustard, which was really all that was offered to me since I was a child.

Recently I started to experiment with different types and I came to really love the spicy condiment. Then I started buying whole mustard seeds to flavor some of my ferments.

So of course the next step became to make and ferment my own mustard. I found a fun recipe for Spicy Stout Mustard over at Inspired Mama Musings. I modified based on ingredients I had on hand and I have to say that this is probably the best mustard I've ever had.

It's spicy. It's tangy. It's perfect on sandwiches. My only complaint is that it's so flavorful that if I put it on something plain and boring (like a turkey sandwich), it completely overtakes the flavor. But I think that just means I need to step up my sandwich game, right?

1.5 cups whole mustard seeds
6 ounces beer - I used Founders Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale
4 ounces balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp tumeric, nutmeg, cinnamon
2 whole cloves
1 tsp honey (raw if you have it)

Combine your ingredients in a glass jar and stir.

Cover and place the jar in a dark place and sit until the mustard seeds have absorbed all the liquid, about 1-2 days.

In case you're not sure, my mustard seeds were actually spilling out of the top because there was no more room for them once they absorbed the liquid!

Place contents in a blender and process until smooth. Not all of your mustard seeds will blend perfectly, and that's okay. Because the seeds absorbed the liquid, they're soft.

After blending, store in the fridge for 6-8 months. Enjoy!