Monday, May 26, 2008

Home Made Yogurt: Easier (and more delicious) Than You Think!

I can remember trying yogurt for the first time as a kid. Most of the brands had a distinctive sour taste, and fruit on the bottom. They came in 8-ounce containers, and sold for anywhere from 25 to 50 cents a cup. Now, with prices double that or more, and the cups shrinking to 6 or even 4 ounces (who can eat 4 ounces of yogurt and call it a satisfying experience?), I decided to re-visit the old fashioned way of getting yogurt. MAKING IT YOURSELF! This isn't just for frugality. I really enjoy making things at home that most people buy prepared. Some of the things we purchase without questioning whether or not they could be created right in our kitchens are actually quite easy to make. Yogurt is one of them, and requires very little in the way of equipment.

There are yogurt makers that you can purchase. I have to tell you though that they are really not necessary. The only piece of equipment you might need to buy is a kitchen thermometer. You will need a thermometer that can read as high as 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit) and as low as 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). For your first batch only, you need starter. A tablespoon of good plain yogurt works fine as long as it has active cultures (check the label). After your first batch you just need to conserve some yogurt each time to use as starter for your next batch.

Take a quart of fresh milk. This can be any kind of regular milk from fat-free, to 2 percent, to whole. Whole milk will produce a thicker result than skim. I have been using 1 percent in my *brew*. Pour the milk into a saucepan and heat slowly to the boiling point (100 degrees C) while stirring to avoid burning. As soon as the milk reaches 100 degrees Celsius, remove it from the heat and let cool. Now watch the temperature carefully and get a clean 1 quart container with a tight-fitting lid to use for the culturing process. I used a 1-quart plastic soup container for the batch pictured here. When the milk has cooled to 50 degrees Celsius, place a tablespoon of your starter yogurt in the bottom of the empty container and pour a small amount of the warm milk in. Mix until smooth, and immediately pour the rest of the milk in to the container, stirring constantly while pouring. Now put the lid on, and put in a warm place, or at least a place free from drafts. You will want to insulate your container to try to keep the temperature between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius. I wrapped mine in three dishtowels, and placed it in a soft-sided picnic cooler with a small bottle of warm water to keep it company, and keep the temperature up. Leave your yogurt undisturbed for 4 to 8 hours, and then refrigerate to stop the culturing process. The amount of time to leave it varies with conditions, and personal preference. I prefer to make it late at night, and put it in the refrigerator in the morning for a total of about 7 hours.

The end product has a very clean taste. Most people who have tried my homemade yogurt say that they could just eat it plain. I do use it plain at times in any recipe that requires sour cream, but for just eating, I like to mix in some fruit or preserves. This time of year it goes very well with fresh-picked wild strawberries. Homemade yogurt is thinner than the commercial variety. The yogurt from the supermarket contains thickeners like pectin, starch, or gelatin. I prefer the taste of it without any thickeners and I am sure that once you try it, you will too. If you really need a thicker texture though, try adding some nonfat dry milk during the initial heating stage. I have read that you can also make soy yogurt this way by using soy milk, as long as it is plain, regular soy milk (no lite ,fat-free, or flavored).

Make sure you use clean containers and utensils, and fresh milk. A good piece of advice is to take a little of your finished yogurt and set it aside in a small jar or cup with a lid. Take this and HIDE it somewhere in the fridge. I learned the hard way that once your family gets a taste of this cultured delicacy, you won't have time to reserve the tablespoon or two needed to make the next batch! Happy culturing!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cattails - The Supermarket of the Swamp

This week we were off to The Great Vly Swamp, which straddles the Ulster-Greene County border near West Camp, New York. I have to mention that Alec filled in for Amy this week on the camera, and I think did a fine job for his first time!

So, what is in the swamp in late-May? Cattails! Specifically, the stalks, or hearts. The Cattail has been referred to as the supermarket of the swamp, as it offers us so many different things. Cattail sprouts, Flour from Cattail roots, Cattail hearts, Cattail-on-the-cob (more on that in a few weeks), and Cattail pollen.

I know that most people are familiar with the common Cattail, and probably know a few places where you see them growing in late summer with their large brown sausage-shaped seed heads. In late May in the Hudson Valley, the Cattails are about 3-4 feet high already, and have not produced anything but their distinctive leaves yet. This is the perfect time to harvest the hearts. Find a tall Cattail plant, and fold the two largest leaves away. Grasp the remaining leaves as low as you can reach, and give a steady, firm pull. The inner leaves should pull out of the plant with about 4 to 8 inches of white at the bottom. This white section is what we're after. We only want the solid middle, so peel away any outer layers. The longer stalks when you are done will vary in thickness at each bamboo-like joint after being peeled. If you give your harvest a little sniff, you will be rewarded with a fresh-smelling combination of celery and cucumber. Try to only pick where abundant, so that you can leave plenty for the next stage of development.

Make sure you have Cattail and not iris. Irises are more flat looking, and will not produce the hearts as pictured here. Cattail hearts can be eaten raw, after being washed and trimmed. The flavor is somewhat like a celery-cucumber-zucchini mix. You can cook them by sauteing in a little olive oil and garlic, or add to soups or stews a few minutes before serving. I like to prepare them like cucumber salad. I slice them into small pieces, blanch them quickly in boiling water (about 1-2 minutes) and immediately plunge into cold water. Then I let them sit in a mixture of wine vinegar, water, honey, slivered red onion, and Italian spices, for at least a day.

In a few weeks, we will return to the swamp for the immature seed heads. This will be a new experience for me, so be sure to check back. I also noticed some Mayapple growing near the boat launch, so we'll have to keep an eye on that through the summer. As always, please forage away from roads, and other sources of pollution. Be sure bring insect repellent, something to collect your harvest in, and don't over pick. See you on the trail!