Olive Oil: The Bad and the Good

First, the Bad

I recently read the book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. It opened my eyes to the shocking process by which most of the world’s olive oil is produced and sold. While we know much about the health benefits of olive oil, these benefits convey only via fresh, pure, unadulterated olive oil. Unfortunately, there is little chance the mass produced olive oil you buy at your local grocery store actually contains “100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil” as the label claims. Because of lax standards in regulating the industry abroad, and due to lack of truth-in-labeling requirements for imports to the United States, most commercially available olive oil is mixed with other cheaper and less healthy seed oils (e.g., cottonseed, sunflower, canola oil).

Furthermore, due to lengthy shipping times and dubious storage conditions, these inferior quality oils are often rancid by the time they make it to grocery store shelves. Consumption of rancid oils can be deleterious to health. But because the American palate has become accustomed to the taste of these inferior oils, we hardly notice the “off” taste or the adulterated flavor of the olive oils we typically consume.

Mueller educates the reader about how small olive farms can hardly survive in the cut-throat world of international olive oil production. The average consumer tends to base purchasing decisions on the lowest available price and does not realize that the product they are paying for is inferior. As long as consumers are unaware of the poor quality of olive oils they purchase and are unwilling to pay the true cost of quality olive oil, the industry is unlikely to change. And unlike the wine industry in Italy, which became highly regulated after a number of deaths occurred from adulterated wine produced in the 1980s, the olive oil industry has had no such calamity that has forced governments to pass laws and enforce regulations which would implement higher standards.

Now, The Good

In spite of all this bad news, there is hope! As consumers become better educated about the issues surrounding olive oil, small specialty shops have opened throughout the United States that specialize in the real thing. And if you are lucky enough to live in or travel to California, where 99% of the olive oil in the US is produced, you might even be able to visit an olive oil ranch and purchase it directly from the grower.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the 140 acre Pasolivo Ranch in Paso Robles, CA. Not only did I see the olive orchard where the olives are grown, I also received a tour of the milling facility. Afterwards, I was able to taste fresh oil from these very trees and purchase some high quality olive oil to bring home.

Pasolivo harvests their olives by hand in the fall. (It should be noted that most large industrial growers use machines that voilently shake the trees, damaging the trees and bruising the olives in the process.) After harvesting, the olives immediately go through a sorting and cleaning process before they are pressed. The olives and pits are pressed together in one ton batches, creating a thick paste. This pomace undergoes treatment in a centrifuge to separate the oil and remove any naturally occurring water. The oil is then transferred to stainless steel vats. Over the next several months the remaining sediments settle to the bottoms of the tanks and are drained off. Finally, the unfiltered oil is bottled.

The entire milling operation takes place here. Freshly harvested olives are weighed, twigs and debris removed, and then pressed. The pomace is centrifuged to separate the oil from the paste and remove any water. The oil is then routed to large stainless steel tanks where any remaining sediments are allowed to sink to the bottom of the tanks before being drained off. The unfiltered oil is then bottled.

“Olio Nuovo”

The early oil produced in the first two weeks of pressing is called “olio nuovo” or “new oil.”  It is highly prized by Italians for its robust grassy flavor but is extremely difficult to come by because of its short-lived and fragile nature. I was lucky enough to get to taste three of Pasolivo’s olio nuovo blends from the 2017 harvest. Comprised of different olive varietals, these very special oils were among the most delicious olive oils I’ve ever tasted. They were all dark green in color, with a fresh, grassy flavor.

The rare and elusive olio nuovo, or “new oil” from this year’s harvest.
This olio nuovo is a blend of three varietals of olives: Mission, Frantoio, and Lucca.

The Tasting Room

Pasolivo also produces flavored olive oils, all made with fresh, local ingredients. For example, the lemon flavored oil uses lemon peels that have been pressed to extract the essential oil which is then incorporated into the olive oil. The basil flavored oil is macerated with fresh locally grown basil leaves for a short period of time to impart the wonderful flavor of basil to the oil.

Tasters are encouraged to dip bread in various combinations of flavored oils and vinegars. Spice mixtures are offered to enhance the tasting experience.

In Pasolivo’s tasting room, visitors are given a complimentary tasting of all eleven types of oil they produce. In addition, they mix up their tasting repertoire with various flavored vinegars and herb/spice/salt mixtures from local producers to give visitors a unique tasting experience and to display the range of uses for their products.

This olive oil was fresh, fruity and pungent, far superior to any mass-produced supermarket olive oil. While its spicy, robust flavors might require a palate adjustment for some people, I loved the intense flavor and the kick in the back of my throat that this oil produced. In fact, knowing that this “kick” is exactly what honest olive oil is supposed to provide, I relished it.

As one might expect, this is not an inexpensive product. The labor intensive process involved in producing these small artisanal batches of liquid gold demands that consumers pay a fair price. Pasolivo offers a membership program where a 15% discount is provided to those agreeing to receive three shipments per year. Knowing that I am getting pure unadulterated olive oil makes this membership well worth the splurge. For more information on their Press Club, click here.

Upon joining Pasolivo’s Press Club, I was given this lovely burlap tote bag and a recipe book containing recipes using their olive oils and other products. With each shipment, I will receive new recipes to add to the notebook.

Since reading Extra Virginity  I have not looked at olive oil in the same way. And now that I’ve found a great resource for truly excellent olive oil, I will gladly support this industry. I encourage you to seek out local sources for high quality olive oil near you. Let us help create demand for the real thing so that oils of a dubious nature are not allowed to continue to flourish.

Pasolivo’s beautiful tasting room offers a variety of olive oil related products including bath and body products, handcrafted wood and ceramic items, and flavored salts, spices, and vinegars.

For more information on this topic, see the 60 Minutes expose, “AgroMafia” here. Also, Tom Mueller has compiled a list of the best supermarket olive oils at reasonable prices. To see his list, click here.

Note: I have not received any compensation of any kind from Pasolivo for this blog. All opinions are my own. I do wish to express my appreciation to Pasolivo for the tour and special tasting of the olio nuovo I received.

Sorbet Mimosas

The holiday season is in full swing and it’s always a good idea to have a go-to drink on hand that can be served when guests drop by. Nothing could be easier than sorbet mimosas! This drink requires only two ingredients which can be kept stocked in your kitchen and served up at a moment’s notice.

A small spring loaded ice cream scoop is a very helpful tool in making this drink. It releases the sorbet in perfectly portioned rounded balls.

The two ingredients are:

  1.  A bottle of your favorite bubbly
  2.  Sorbet
Put a scoop of sorbet in the glass first and then slowly pour the bubbly on top of it.

For the bubbly, you can use champagne, sparkling wine, or even non-alcoholic sparking cider or ginger ale. Tailor the flavor and color of the sorbet to the holiday you wish to celebrate. In this example, I am using mango sorbet because the orange color is a nice compliment to my current fall palette. For Christmas, a pretty red raspberry sorbet or lime green sorbet would be fitting. Gourmet shops often stock more exotic flavors so feel free to experiment, coordinating the color and flavor to your occasion.

Served in fluted glasses, and garnished with a sprig of mint and a fun polka dotted straw, this is a pretty cocktail that takes mere minutes to whip up.

I can’t think of a better way to welcome visitors during the holidays!

 

 

Dessert Pizza

A few weeks ago I gave you my recipe for easy overnight pizza dough. While everyone knows that savory pizzas can be made from all sorts of sauces, vegetables, and meats, did you know that pizza dough can also be used to make dessert?

Just like a regular pizza, you’ll need a “sauce” to act as the base of your dessert pizza. Here are a few ideas:

  • Nutella
  • Peanut butter
  • Ricotta with honey
  • Cookie dough spread
  • Almond butter
  • Raspberry jam

There are endless toppings to choose from to coordinate with your base. Consider things like:

  • M&Ms
  • Crushed Oreo cookies or graham crackers
  • Chopped strawberries other other fresh fruit
  • Caramels
  • Coconut
  • Chopped nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Miniature marshmallows

First roll out your dough, and dot it with butter. Bake for about 8 minutes in a 500 degree oven. Keep an eye on it as you don’t want to overcook it. As soon as you see it puff up and become light golden in color, take it out.

While it’s still hot, spread on your favorite base. For this pizza I used Nutella. It will begin to melt as soon as it is applied to the hot crust. Just spread it out evenly over the crust. Then add your favorite toppings. I added chocolate chips, slivered almonds and chopped white chocolate in this example, but let your imagination be your guide. You could even drizzle the finished product with butterscotch or caramel sauce for extra decadence!

Pop it back in the oven for about 3 minutes until everything is melted and gooey.

This is a unique dessert that is fun to serve for company. Guests can even customize their own pizzas. You can set out a spread of small bowls filled with various toppings and different types of spreads. Kids can have fun rolling out their own mini-pizzas and creating their own masterpieces.

What combinations would make your perfect dessert pizza?

Easy Overnight Pizza Dough

Pizza is a bit of an obsession at our house. Calling for delivery stopped being an option several years ago when I discovered a super easy, ultra-forgiving way to make pizza dough at home that tastes far better than any delivery service pizza I’ve had.

Before I discovered this method, I thought yeast-raised dough was temperamental and time-consuming, requiring lots of watching and kneading. Nothing could be further from the truth! With this recipe, I simply mix up my ingredients the night before and refrigerate the dough overnight. By the next day, the dough has risen and is ready to be used. It just requires a few hours on the counter to reach room temperature and it’s ready to be rolled out.

First, mix yeast with warm water and a little honey to proof the yeast. See those small bubbles? That tells you the yeast is alive.

 

I love the flexibility of this recipe. Something comes up and can’t use your dough the next day? No problem, it will wait for you. Can’t use it for a few days? Just add in a tablespoon of flour (so the yeast has something to eat and can continue growing) and it will keep a few more days. You can actually prolong your dough for quite a long time this way. You can even freeze this dough. When you’re ready to use it, leave it out for at least 12 hours so that it has had time to thaw and reach room temperature.

Drizzle a little olive oil on top of the dough before covering and placing in the refrigerator.

 

Here’s my recipe. I am giving approximate measurements as I have learned that being exact is not required for this dough. In fact, I don’t measure any more and just kind of “eyeball” the proportions. If you don’t use salt, leave it out. If you are cutting out sugar, leave out the honey or use another type of sweetener instead. I like to use an Italian XX flour as I find it gives a crispy bite and a nice chew, but it is certainly not necessary. 

Overnight Pizza Dough (makes one 16″ pizza)

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup warm water

1 teaspoon yeast

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon salt

Add honey to warm water and sprinkle yeast on top. Let sit for a few minutes and then gradually add flour and salt. Stir until ingredients are incorporated. Once all the flour is incorporated you should be able to form a sticky ball. If it’s too wet, add more flour; too dry, add a bit more water. Drizzle a little olive oil on top of dough to keep the surface moist and place in a covered glass container. Refrigerate overnight. Remove at least 2 hours before you plan to roll it out. Roll out on a floured surface, then transfer to baking sheet. Top with your favorite sauce and toppings. Preheat your oven to its hottest setting (up to 500 degrees) and bake for about 10 minutes. Enjoy!!

If you find your dough snaps back and doesn’t allow you to roll it out easily, let it rest another 10 minutes. See those air bubbles? Those air pockets will create a crispy light pizza crust.
Topped with tomato sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, onions, peppers, pepperoni, mozzarella and fresh basil, this is our favorite Friday night dinner.

 

Recipe Hacks

Did you ever eat something at a restaurant and wish you could duplicate it at home? Did you know that there are websites dedicated to developing recipes that closely mimic restaurant recipes? Lucky for us, there are some very creative cooks out there with superior palates who have been able decipher the ingredients and cooking techniques for many popular restaurant dishes. Their websites “hack” some of the most popular restaurant dishes around so that you can make them at home!

My re-creation of the lettuce wraps “special sauce” at P. F. Chang’s.

Here are a few sites to get you started:

https://www.brit.co/famous-restaurant-recipes-dupes-hacks/

https://www.buzzfeed.com/jessicamisener/copycat-recipes-for-your-favorite-chain-restaurant-foods?utm_term=.wxDQaNLjja#.fnXmw2BRRw

http://www.food.com/ideas/copycat-recipes-6576?c=514595

If you don’t find the recipe for your favorite restaurant dish on any of these websites, try typing in the name of the restaurant and the dish you’d like to duplicate. Then add the words “hack” or “copy cat” to the search. As long as it’s a well-known restaurant, you should get several results.


For example, I adore the chicken lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s and wanted to see if I could recreate them at home. I did a search for the recipe for P. F. Chang’s chicken lettuce wraps. Lots of results came up, but the one I decided to make can be found here.

I was able to find all the ingredients I needed for my P.F. Chang’s lettuce wraps at a regular grocery store.
Having made this dish a few times before, I deviated from the recipe slightly. I have found that chopping the chicken into small pieces is much easier if you do it when the chicken is half frozen. The firmer texture makes it easy to slice thinly and then chop into small pieces. (The recipe recommends pan frying the breasts whole first and then chopping.)
I cooked small batches of the chicken in my wok. As each batch cooked, I moved the cooked pieces higher up on the edge of the wok. The heat in a wok is most concentrated at the bottom and this technique keeps the cooked pieces from overcooking.

The verdict? My chicken lettuce wraps were salty, crunchy, fresh and sweet with the same hint of smokiness that the restaurant version has. The special sauce had the same taste and texture as the restaurant version. In fact, if tasted side by side with P. F. Chang’s version, I’m not sure I would be able to tell the difference!

Deep frying the mai fun rice noodles in oil is the messiest part of the recipe–but it is also the most fun. Once the oil is the right temperature, the noodles almost immediately will puff up and rise to the top of the oil. Test by placing a single noodle in the oil before adding a larger quantity.
It takes only a few seconds to cook the rice noodles. Scoop them out of the oil with a spider immediately after they puff up and place on a paper towel to drain.

I will say that I don’t think P. F. Chang’s has anything to worry about. This was not a simple dish to make. The amount of time, specialized ingredients, number of steps, and the overall mess involved in making this particular dish prevents me from making it often. I will continue to visit the restaurant for it most of the time, but it is nice to know that if I want to make it at home, I can reproduce the restaurant version pretty well.

What’s your favorite restaurant dish? Can you hack it?

A Culinary Tour of Old Montreal

 

On a recent trip to the lovely city of Montreal, I felt I was almost in France–but without the long plane ride! Because my vacation would not have been complete without a thorough sampling of the local cuisine, I signed up for a tour called “Flavours and Aromas of Old Montreal.”

Our tour was led by the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable Lorna Schectman-Greenberg of VDM Global Tours. We headed to Old Montreal on foot to explore some of the best hidden food purveyors in town. Not only was Lorna extremely well-versed in the cuisine of Montreal, she also had extensive knowledge of the history, culture and architecture of the city. We were lucky to have such a well-informed guide to lead us through the charming cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.


The white pâté is duck foie gras and the darker pâté with the cornichon is duck and veal.

Our first stop was at “Marche de La Villette,” a French restaurant and butcher shop with a marvelous selection of gourmet meats, cheeses, and condiments. We sampled two types of pâté, both served on perfect slices of baguette. One was a blend of veal and duck, and the other, a duck foie gras. This tasting required me to make two exceptions to my usual dietary restrictions–veal and foie gras. I don’t normally consume either because of the inhumane treatment the animals typically endure in the production of these foods, but because it was part of the tour and as only two small bites were provided, I made an exception. I found these pâtés to be a little coarser in texture than most pâtés I’ve had before. They were hearty and substantial, perfectly seasoned, and full of flavor. Despite leaving the restaurant with a bit of a guilty conscience for the sake of the animals, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed both decadent bites.


Our second destination was a Portuguese bakery called “Cantinho de Lisboa,” famous for their pastéis de nata. These bite-sized egg custards in flaky crusts were luxuriously rich, but also quite delicate. The light crunch of the phyllo-style crust combined with the cool creamy custard filling was the perfect juxtaposition of textures. While the Portuguese population of Montreal is quite small, this bakery has made an indelible mark on the culture and cuisine of Old Montreal and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

It is thought that pastéis de nata was created by Catholic monks at a Portuguese monastery sometime before the 18th century. Because convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes, such as nuns’ habits, there were many egg yolks left over. Pastéis de nata was created to make use of the excess egg yolks.

Our next stop was “Masion Christian Faure,” a patisserie owned and operated by award-winning French pastry chef, Christian Faure. In addition to the restaurant and patisserie, Chef Faure opened a cooking school at this location in 2013 to teach authentic French pastry making techniques in Canada. We sampled their macaroons. Given the variety of offerings, it was a difficult decision but I opted for the coconut flavor. It was delicate and light, with just the right combination of crunch and chew. Taking a cooking class here is definitely on my bucket list!

There was a variety of macaroon flavors to choose from including pistachio, cassis, strawberry, coconut, mocha and chocolate.
The patisserie also had a dazzling assortment of pastries and cakes.

We then trekked to a restaurant-bar along the St. Lawrence River waterfront called “Faste Fou.” Here we sampled smoked meat sandwiches, a signature dish of Montreal. While no one knows for sure who “officially” introduced smoked meat to Montreal, experts seem to agree that the dish is likely Romanian and Jewish in origin. Beef brisket is salted and brined in spices before being smoked and cooked. Sliced thinly, it is typically served on rye bread with plain mustard. It is often likened to pastrami, but it comes from a different part of the animal and I found the flavor to be a bit more subtle.


Our final stop was “Delices Erable & Cie,” a boutique that specializes in maple products. Quebec leads the world in maple syrup production and maple products are considered emblematic of Canada, so no food tour would be complete without a maple sampling. In addition to multiple types of maple syrup, this shop offered maple coffee and tea, maple candy, maple butter, maple mustard, maple gelato…you get the idea! I enjoyed tasting the wide array of samples that were available in the store. I purchased some of their maple pork rub and a cranberry-maple-nut topping for baked brie. I look forward to sharing these goodies, along with memories of my trip, with friends back home.


While not included in our tour, Lorna also educated us about two other important foods of Montreal: poutine and the Montreal bagel. Of course I would have been remiss not to give them both a try while there! 

There are gourmet versions of poutine involving things like foie gras, duck breast, and steak, but the classic version is comprised of french fries topped with cold cheese curds and hot gravy. Poutine cannot be considered a diet food by any stretch of the imagination but it is a filling comfort food apropos for fueling young hockey players and long Canadian winters.

The Montreal bagel differs from most bagels in that it is dipped in honey-water before cooking and is baked in a wood-fired oven which gives it a somewhat smokey flavor. It is served with cream cheese or butter and is typically eaten for breakfast.


The tour provided an excellent overview of the multi-cultural food legacy of Montreal. It was a delight to experience these foods and discover hidden purveyors I would never have found on my own. If you have the opportunity to visit Montreal, I encourage you to explore the unique cuisine of this lovely city. You’ll be glad you did.

Note: All opinions expressed are my own. I have not received compensation of any kind from any of the establishments mentioned in this post. 

Blind Wine Tasting Party

One of my favorite things to do is visit wineries and participate in their tasting programs. At winery tastings, one usually samples a flight of five or six of the winery’s current offerings. But a winery-style tasting certainly is not the only way to taste wine. There are vertical tastings, horizontal tastings, wine-food pairings, Old World vs. New World comparisons, etc. Tastings can be designed according to your budget and can be tailored to the skill level and interests of your guests.
While we were waiting for our guests to arrive, we started off the evening with a little sparkling Spanish Cava, rosemary-parmesan popcorn and watermelon, mint and feta kabobs.
Regardless of the type of wine tasting, the primary goal is to have fun and enjoy the wine! Secondarily, tastings are an opportunity to train your nose and palate to appreciate the subtle and not-so-subtle characteristics of each wine.
I decided to host a blind tasting, which is a tasting where guests are kept unaware of the wines’ identities. I disguised the labels of five wines of different varietals. Guests were asked to identify the varietals from a list of options.
I believe that wine is best when accompanied by food so I added a “grazing table” so that there was always something good to eat alongside the wines. A wide variety of cheeses, olives, condiments, nuts, and other “small bites” were provided to allow guests to create their own pairings.
 
  
Step by step, here’s how this event was put together.

1.  Select your wines. I selected five wines, consisting of two whites and three reds. I chose single varietal wines because I knew blends would likely be difficult for my friends to decipher. The only information I gave my guests was that all of the wines were from California, with one exception.

2. Cover the labels on each bottle. I made bags out of burlap fabric, tied them up with jute strings, and added tags with numbers indicating their order in the tasting. Start with the lightest wine and work your way to the boldest or heaviest. If you don’t know how to order the wines, the internet is there to help you.
For whites:  http://winefolly.com/review/beginners-white-wines-list/
For reds:  http://winefolly.com/tutorial/the-spectrum-of-boldness-in-red-wines-chart/)

3.  Give clues.  A card with a brief description of every varietal included in the tasting was provided to each guest. This helped narrow down the options, but to make things a bit more interesting, I added one additional white and one additional red to the list that were not included in the tasting. (Yep, this threw off even the best tasters in the group!)4. Provide cards for scoring, rating, and guessing the varietal. This gives your guests an opportunity to reflect upon the flavors and characteristics of each wine, to indicate how much they liked it, and to make their best guess at the varietal. I added a few additional questions for bonus points in case there was a tie. Here’s a free editable download of the card I designed: eclecticgirldesigns.com/winetastingscorecard.docx

This tasting consisted of all California wines with the exception of one–a 2012 Cabernet Franc from my native Virginia. I gave my guests a hint that the exception was not a well-known wine region, but no one was able to identify that it was from Virginia.

 

5. Decant each wine before pouring. Although this step is not essential, virtually every wine benefits from decanting. It oxygenates the wine and allows it to “breathe.”  Decanting enhances and softens the flavors in the wine, particularly young wines and is a trick than can make an inexpensive wine drink much better. It also helps remove any sediments that have accumulated in the bottle. Even a brief decanting of 5 or 10 minutes can make a big difference.

6.  Provide a spittoon. This is a container for pouring out wine that isn’t wanted. Tasting wine is a very individual experience and you shouldn’t be offended if not everyone likes everything you serve. I used an ironstone pitcher but any opaque container will work.

7.  Reveal and tally. After all the wines have been tasted, reveal the labels. Tally up the scores and determine the winner.

And the winner is…Tamar! She has a superior palate, correctly identifying all but one wine, and she got almost every bonus question correct.
The prize was a gift basket filled with cheese tasting goodies–because a bottle of wine would have been just too cliché!

This is the first wine tasting party I’ve hosted but it certainly won’t be the last. It was fun, interactive, and provided an atmosphere of good-natured competition that allowed us to get to know one another better.

Putting a wine tasting party together isn’t difficult. It takes a little time to select the wines and assemble the foods, but because I chose to serve mostly prepared foods, it didn’t require a lot of time in the kitchen. I was able to spend most of the evening enjoying the company of my guests. It also provided an opportunity to share some the special wines from my cellar.
If you decide to try a wine tasting at your next gathering, remember it isn’t rocket science and shouldn’t be an intimidating experience. The most important thing to remember is to have fun!

Indian Cooking Class – Part 2

Last week I told you about an Indian cooking class I took at our local community college. That post on legumes and Indian bread is available here:  http://eclecticgirldesigns.com/index.php/2017/07/24/indian-cooking-class-part-1/   Today’s post will cover the last two classes in the series on yogurt, cheese making and eggplant dishes.

We were introduced to a wide variety of fragrant spices and herbs in the class.

Yogurt and Cheese

I remember my mother making yogurt and cheese when I was a child, but I wasn’t directly involved in the making of either so the process remained a mystery to me. I was surprised to see how easy both were to make. The flavor of these homemade dairy products was so much better than commercial versions. You can also be assured that there are no artificial ingredients or additives involved when you make it yourself.

Not only is our instructor, Raka Mehra, a great home cook, she is also extremely knowledgeable about nutrition. Throughout the course she enlightened us regarding the nutritional benefits of the dishes we were preparing, yogurt being no exception. It is a fermented food that is nutrient-dense and rich in high-quality protein, important probiotics and linoleic acid. Raka reminded us that yogurt is alive with beneficial cultures and bacteria that are crucial to the health of our gut.


Making Yogurt

There are only two ingredients in homemade yogurt: milk and a starter culture. We used fresh plain yogurt as the starter culture, which is easily obtainable at any grocery store.

Bring whole milk to almost boiling and allow to cool before adding your yogurt starter. The milk is heated to kill the milk’s bacteria so as not to complete with the bacteria we introduce (Lactobacillus & Streptococcus) with the starter culture.

Slowly heat a quart of milk to almost boiling. Then allow to cool to approximately 110 – 115 degrees. Add 1 teaspoon of plain fresh yogurt and stir until incorporated. Incubate in a warm place for 5 – 7 hours. Raka recommended an Instant Pot ( http://instantpot.com/ ) for this process because it has a yogurt setting which simplifies the entire process. However this device is not necessary. The most important thing is to keep the yogurt consistently warm, so putting it inside a warm oven or even wrapping it in a blanket will work just fine. Once yogurt is ready, a layer of water will form on top.  It can then be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Plain yogurt with a little honey and raspberries makes a delicious and nutritious breakfast.

Paneer (Indian Cheese)

Paneer  is a yogurt cheese with a very clean light texture and taste. It is used extensively in Indian cuisine and also makes a healthy snack.

Paneer Recipe (Indian Yogurt Cheese)

  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • 1 quart buttermilk or 3 cups homemade yogurt

Heat milk to near boiling. Add warmed buttermilk or yogurt to avoid a dramatic temperature change. Reduce heat to low and stir to avoid burning on the bottom. Large clumps called “curds” will begin to form. Turn off heat when whey and curds separate. (The whey is the yellowish liquid that will form.) Let sit for 5 – 10 minutes. Strain liquid from cheese using a cheesecloth, pressing out as much whey as possible. Then shape the cheese into a flat disc. Place a weight on top to press out more liquid. After about 15 minutes, most of the water will have released and your cheese is ready. Cheese should be stored in the refrigerator in cold water.

You can see the curds forming and separating from the whey.
Strain the whey from the cheese curds using a large cheesecloth. The whey is the yellowish liquid in the bowl to the right. It is loaded with protein and is highly nutritious. Don’t throw it away! It can be added to smoothies, soup stock, used to soak grains before cooking, etc. Some people even recommend bathing in it for smooth soft skin!
Once most of the water has been drained, press out the cheese with your hands, shaping it into a flat disc. Keeping the cheese wrapped in the cheese cloth, place a weight on top of the disc which will help the cheese solidify and continue to strain out even more whey.
Raka sandwiched the cheese between two cutting boards and placed the heavy pot of whey on top to squeeze out any remaining moisture. It was allowed to drain into the sink for about 20 minutes.
Once the cheese has drained and firmed up, it can be cut into pieces for serving.

Eggplants

The final class focused on eggplant dishes from northern India. Emphasizing the importance of freshness, Raka said she chose to present eggplant dishes to us because that was what looked best at the market that day. We made three different eggplant dishes, but in this post I will discuss only one, bharva baingan or stuffed eggplants. This is a dish I had never seen before but I found it to be the most delicious of all the eggplant dishes we made.

Bharva Baingan (Stuffed Eggplants)

  • 6 small round eggplants
  • 2 tsp. coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili powder
  • 3 T. grated coconut
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tsp. tamarind paste in 2 T. water
  • salt to taste
  • 2 T. oil
  • 1 tsp. black mustard seeds
  • 6 -8 curry leaves (found in Indian market)
  • 2 dry red whole chilies
  • Cilantro and grated coconut to garnish

Make two perpendicular slits in eggplants without cutting all the way through. This opening will hold the filling.

Dry roast coriander and cumin seeds and grind in coffee grinder. Mix together coriander, cumin, turmeric, red chili powder, coconut, garlic, and salt. Fill the slits in the eggplants with the filling.

Heat oil in heavy pan. Add mustard seeds, dry red chilies and curry leaves and cover until popping stops. Add filled eggplants to pan and cover with lid. Cook until browned on all sides, gently turning them so that the filling stays inside the eggplants. Eggplants will soften and release their juices as they cook.

Add tamarind and water mixture and cook for another 2- 3 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and a little grated coconut.

Gently spread the eggplants apart and fill with the spice mixture.
Saute mustard seeds, dry red chilies, and curry leaves and add stuffed eggplants to pan. Cover pot to hold in moisture. Turn eggplants frequently to brown on all sides.
Once eggplants are cooked through, they will soften. Add tamarind paste and cook another 2-3 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and fresh grated coconut.

After my four Indian cooking classes, I know I still have a lot to learn. However, I can say that I no longer find this cuisine quite as mysterious or intimidating as I once did. I now have the confidence to continue experimenting and look forward to challenging myself by making even more complex Indian dishes. Are you ready to give Indian cooking a try?

Cooking together inspired a lot of camaraderie. I enjoyed getting to know the other students in the class.
We celebrated in our final class with a meal which included the dishes we made that day and other dishes brought to class by students.

Note:  Many thanks to Raka and my classmates who were so gracious in allowing me to share their images in my blog.

 

Indian Cooking Class – Part 1

As much as I enjoy Indian cuisine, I’ve hesitated to attempt making it at home. The exotic spices, complex flavor combinations, and mysterious ingredients have always intimidated me! So when our local community college offered an Indian cooking class, I jumped at the opportunity to have this extraordinary cuisine demystified.

This is the first of a two-part series. Today’s post will cover the classes on legumes and bread. Next week’s blog will cover the classes on yogurt making, cheese, and eggplant dishes.

A staple in every Indian kitchen is the spice tin or masala dabba. The most commonly used spices are kept organized and ready for use in a handy sealed container.

Our instructor was Raka Mehra, a home cook from northern India with many years of experience preparing her native dishes. Having garnered much acclaim by those lucky enough to be invited to her home for a meal,  she decided to develop this class to teach others the secrets of her delicious north Indian dishes.

Raka emphasized that everyday dishes in India are generally much lighter and healthier than those served at most Indian restaurants. Importantly, she assured us that with basic cooking skills, one can prepare a truly authentic Indian meal.

This is a small sampling of the numerous legumes used in Indian cuisine.

Legumes

In our first class, Raka gave us a brief overview of the numerous legumes used in Indian cooking. Economical and high in protein, legumes are extremely nutritious and contain a range of essential nutrients including vitamin B (especially folate), iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. They are also abundant in dietary fiber.

Of all the legume options available, we focused on lentils which are among the quickest to prepare. We made two lentil dishes but my favorite was coconut daal made from red (or washed) lentils. The dish contains coconut milk which makes it rich and creamy with a somewhat delicate flavor.


Raka’s Coconut Daal

1 cup washed red lentils (masoor)
1 can coconut milk (full fat)
1 ¼ cup water
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 -2 green chilies, sliced
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. turmeric
2 T. oil
2 tsp. black mustard seeds (or cumin seeds)
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped

Place lentils, coconut milk, water, chopped onion, tomatoes, chilies, salt and turmeric in a pan.  Simmer 20 minutes or until lentils are tender.

While lentils are cooking, heat oil in frying pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds and cover until popping stops. Add sliced onions and fry until crisp.

Mix sautéed onions and mustard seeds with cooked lentils and garnish with cilantro. Serve with rice.


The finished product, Raka’s Coconut Daal.

Bread Making: Roti and Paratha

In our second session we learned about the classic Indian bread commonly known as roti or chapati. This is an unleavened whole wheat tortilla-like bread that is hearty and versatile. While most of us think of naan as the quintessential Indian bread, we learned that roti is more typically consumed on a daily basis in India, while naan is usually reserved for special occasions.

The basic dough for roti contains only two ingredients: flour and water. It is kneaded by hand, formed into balls and rolled into flat discs. It is then cooked on a  lightly greased griddle on top of the stove.

Basic Recipe for Roti

1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour
3/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt (optional)

Mix all ingredients until stiff dough forms.  Knead until dough no longer sticks to your hands. Let rest for about 20 minutes.

Divide dough into 8 equal parts and roll into balls. Roll balls into 6 – 8″ discs. Lightly grease pan and heat to medium high. Cook until brown blisters begin to appear and flip. Roti will puff up when done.


When done, the roti puffs up and then quickly deflates.

 

While roti is delicious simply spread with a little butter, we also made paratha which is roti filled with vegetables, or cheese and spices. My favorite was paneer paratha, which is roti filled with cheese (paneer).


Paneer Paratha

2 cups shredded paneer (Indian yogurt cheese)
1 T. finely chopped ginger
2 T. chopped cilantro
1/2 t. cumin powder
1/4 t. red chili flakes
Salt to taste
2 T. yogurt

Mix all ingredients except yogurt together.  Then add yogurt until crumbly paste forms.

Place filling in the middle of the rolled out roti and then gently gather edges together, forming a purse-like packet. Roll flat again and fry in lightly oiled pan until brown on both sides.


Place the cheese filling in the middle of the roti.
Pinch the edges of the roti together. Once the filling is fully encapsulated in the bread, roll it out flat again and cook it in a lightly greased pan on top of the stove.  The bread will begin to blister and may puff up a bit.  Flip and cook the other side.

With a little spiced yogurt, paratha make a delicious accompaniment to a meal or a filling snack. Both roti and paratha are well-suited to freezing, so a batch can be made ahead of time and taken out as needed.

Paneer  paratha with spiced yogurt.

Perhaps the most important tip I gleaned from this class was how important it is to purchase whole spices and dry roast them in a frying pan before grinding. Dry roasting changes the chemistry of proteins, releases the oils in spices, changes their flavor, and enhances the scent and taste of spices.  If you want maximum flavor in your Indian dishes, don’t skip this step!

Raka, our knowledgeable instructor.

I did not find any of these dishes to be difficult to make and was delighted to learn how nutritious they are. I am excited about adding these dishes to my repertoire and hope you will give them a try as well.

Stay tuned next week for part two of my foray into Indian cooking!

 

The Creative Presentation of Food

It has often been said that we first eat with our eyes.  I would argue that eating involves all of our senses and perhaps that is why is so pleasurable.

I recently had the pleasure of taking a workshop on creative food presentation at Pasadena’s Shakespeare Club, the oldest women’s club in Southern California. Our speaker was Dr. Ann David, educator, author, and Vice President of the Shakespeare Club. She began with a slide show of elegantly displayed hors d’oeuvres and noted the importance of having different flavors, textures, and colors in the presentation of food. While it’s fine to place a wedge of cheese on a plate with a basket of crackers, it takes very little additional effort to add flourish with a few pieces of fruit, a bowl of nuts, a drizzle of honey or other garnish.

The vessels on which the appetizers are displayed should be of varying heights, and of different materials. It makes the table much more interesting to use a variety of shapes, levels and textures. A glass pedestal stand combined with a basket or rustic wood tray adds dimension and interest to the overall presentation, whereas several flat plates of similar size and height would not give the same effect.

We also were reminded that it’s important that the appetizers not only look good but they should taste great as well. Because guests will usually be eating just a single bite of whatever you are serving, your goal is to make that one bite an incredible one!

This lovely room was our makeshift “kitchen.” While it was challenging to work with limited resources, we were still able to make a surprisingly attractive display of hors d’oeuvres.

After Anne’s brief presentation, the organizers of the event set up a practice exercise where participants were given the opportunity to put their newly acquired knowledge into practice. We were divided into small groups and given a “mystery bag” of groceries with which to prepare an appetizer.  Some bags had numerous food items such as cheese, crackers, vegetables, fruit, and other goodies. My group got a single bowl of hard boiled eggs! Fortunately we were allowed to trade with other folks for ingredients and there was a table with various condiments available to everyone.

This picture from Pinterest was our inspiration for our dish.

My teammates and I decided to recreate a Pinterest picture we found of deviled eggs that looked like chicks hatching. We traded an egg for some orange peppers  and a few cherry tomatoes, and picked up some mayonnaise, mustard, pickles and capers from the condiment table. We cut a zigzag pattern into the eggs to separate the halves and remove the yolk. We mixed up our filling, filled the eggs, and made eyes from capers and beaks from orange peppers.

Though our deviled eggs were not as aesthetically pleasing as the Pinterest picture, everyone seemed to grasp what we were trying to achieve. We added some dill springs around the edge of our platter to create a nest and a few cherry tomatoes for garnish.

Here is the final table the class presented at the end of the workshop.  It’s a cornucopia of color! (Though it did not live up to our expectations, our nest of deviled egg chicks is shown on the left.)

When everyone was finished, our creations were displayed and everyone was invited to eat and enjoy the appetizers with a libation. In spite of limited resources, the groups created some very attractive platters and delicious combinations of flavors.

In my opinion, this platter was the winner. It was immensely creative and incorporated all the elements of good presentation. Note the caprese kabobs using parsley as skewers. Also check out the “flower” made from thin crackers broken into petals with dried cranberries in the center. The lavender sprigs in the center give height and fragrance to the display.

What will you do to elevate your appetizer presentation at your next event?