Experimental Stuffed Peppers

As promised, I was able to transform my Daring Baker fail into quite a respectable dinner. On a nicely solitary Saturday evening, I ate my pepper alongside the must make braised scallions from Molly Stevens via Food52 (read more on that here), and was quite proud of my restraint from ditching that loaf of failed sprouted wheat, millet and pumpkin quick bread, since it became one of the best stuffed pepper fillings I've ever had.

pepper filling

I browned a pound of Italian sausage from local mom-n-pop Cudahy sausage shop Adamcyk's, and when the sausage drained on towels I fried some leek and onion in the residual fat. When everything cooled, I mixed it carefully by hand using about half of the loaf of failed quick bread and aiming for a chunky, happy homogenization. Then, I hollowed out and filled a single red pepper and propped it up for steaming using a thrift store brioche mold. The single pepper fit nicely in my oatmeal pot, and the shear ease and lack of kitchen mess reminded me yet again why it is such a pleasure to cook only for one once in a while...

steaming pepper rig

Meanwhile, I made economical use of the oven heat by making gorgeous braised green onions along with a few perfect specimens of baby Shanghai greens I found at the Asian market last week. I had no tarragon growing yet in the yard, which actually is currently full of rapidly melting snow, so I braised my greens with a stalk of lemongrass. To the horror of some, a couple of dried bay leaves that I recently replenished from the Spice House also made a way into the braise. (As a side note, I read some geeky talk about bay leaves and trees last Fall, and never quite got over the idea that I wanted fresh bay. My new purchase of dried leaves smelled so good when I was perusing my spice cupboard for suitable accompaniments I couldn't help myself from throwing them in the pan. I'm not sure if I added or subtracted from the flavor, but I will say that braised green onions and baby Shanghais are probably one of my new favorite things.)

baby Shanghai greens.

braised scallions

I love steaming stuffed peppers rather than cooking them in a liquid or sauce so that they become all soft and flabby. Not only do they retain their shape, but the filling steams along with them, keeping it moist and not falling apart. About 30 minutes was all it took for it to cook through, and then I topped it with just a bit of shredded pecorino cheese. I had some strained yogurt in the fridge, and it was also a great idea to use some of that as a sour and tangy garnish.

My gustatory delight, shared via email with a friend (or maybe two), was so winning I surprised myself. The pumpkin in the bread really came through, and the traces of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg were heightened by the pork flavor. It would have been too lean without the sausage, and this is coming from someone who probably eats far less than that of my peers here in Wisconsin, where the regional sausage allotment has to be quite high compared to the national average. My stuffed experiments were a perfect balance of sweet and savory, and a great way to spend a Saturday evening alone. In fact, I'd make another loaf of failed sprouted wheat, millet and pumpkin bread in the future just to make these!

stuffed red pepper

My Bravest Adventure Yet: Kombucha

GT's brand was my first experience with kombucha, a fermented tea beverage, probably about a year ago. Now through the wonders of friendship and Internet, I can say I will probably be GT's free indefinitely. Starter teas and finishing flavors including different juices, can vary, but the hallmark vinegar bite generally does not, and home brewing of kombucha allows the brewer a hand in controlling the amount of tang in the finished drink. This was certainly one thing that a year ago I would never have envisioned myself making in my home kitchen.

Kombucha is another item in the list of "love it or hate it" type things, due to it's unique flavor profile. I think, for me anyway, kombucha could be likened to cilantro; when I first tried cilantro - sometime in the 1990's I think - I hated it. Really, really hated it. Then, a few days later at work, an indescribable craving for cilantro came over me. I had to have cilantro, and from then on I couldn't get enough. That is how kombucha was, one sip and I was kind of amazed, a day or two later, I was full out obsessed.

Prior to my first sip, I had only generally overheard people talking about kombucha, and had seen it sold for exorbitant prices in the co-op, when I decided to purchase a 16 oz. bottle for about $4.50. I didn't know what to expect, so I didn't know that opening a freshly shaken bottle, in the car mind you, was going to be a really bad idea. About a third of my expensive trial run ended up stickily coating the interior of the Olds, and I learned firsthand about the natural effervescence of kombucha.

While the price of bottled kombucha appears to be going down (I assume in part due to increased competition from other brands), it is by far less expensive to make it yourself. And if you have a need for kitchen projects, as I do, the attraction to this one is purely irresistible. For some reason, I used to think that this was something best left to the controlled environment of a commercial kitchen laboratory, but now that I have been living with a SCOBY for a bit more than a week, any fears I had about home brewing tea from a living organism have evaporated. It is interesting to cohabitate with a culture of this nature, who goes through daily changes, and can perpetuate many generations. It could be the stuff of science fiction, or it could be age old wisdom in the new-fangled guise of popularity. Whatever it is, it is delicious, and it's worth giving a try!

Ok. If you are squeamish, this may be where you want to depart for the day. The kombucha brewing process begins with a SCOBY:

SCOBY, circa day 3 of first batch brewing.

SCOBY stands for Symbotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. So this little guy above, a baby SCOBY given to me by my friends Peef and Lo at the Burp! Blog, is an actual living organism. He feeds off sugar, growing and fermenting the liquid he is in until the tea is ready and full of healthful strains of vitamins, enzymes and acids, usually 7-10 days but as long as 30 days depending on your fondness for vinegar and your sensitivity to sugar. The longer the SCOBY resides in the tea, the more sugar it eats. The final elixir is slightly alcoholic, but contains far less than 1% alcohol, and the SCOBY produces multiple beneficial organic acids during the process.

It seems there is no real medical fact to back up any of the health claims, of which there are many. Even the Mayo Clinic notes that there is no human trial on record to back up any such heath claims. Most fascinating to me, however, are the claims by numerous people of the beneficial effect of glucuronic acid produced by the SCOBY.

Glucuronic acid is touted as having superior detoxifying abilities, and cleans the liver. Cancer and other vicious afflictions such as rheumatism appear to have drastic positive reactions to glucuronic acid, and to the host of other beneficial acids contained in kombucha. It appears the glucuronic acid is best produced in tea stored at a constant 74-84 degrees farenheit, and not as well at cooler temperatures. I'd say my kitchen has been a little cooler than that, but it seems that I've been doing ok so far. There is no shortage of information to be Googled, if you are interested. I found some great overviews here at the Happy Herbalist and here at Food Renegade for starters.

But more important to me than unsubstantiated health benefits, kombucha is adventurous. The name, obviously, sounds very Japanese, and is thought to originate in the far east. According to Seeds of Health, around 415 AD a Korean physician named "Kombu or Kambu" treated the Japanese Emperor Inyko with "cha"(tea), and the result evidently was positive as the tea then took the name Kombucha. Kombucha then migrated to Russia and on to Eastern Europe. (The Seeds of Health link above also outlines the numerous beneficial acids contained in kombucha.) Traveling tea, made from living organisms that, I'm guessing substantiated or not, are pretty darn healthy? Sign me up!

In our food geekery talks, Lo told me of her aunt who had multiple SCOBY's and kombucha batches going. Different teas, green or black, lead to different flavors, and Lo's aunt sounds like she has an awesome "laboratory" to choose from. The culture that Lo chose was from an Earl Grey tea, a tea that generally is considered a poor choice for growing a SCOBY. We both have had good luck so far, Lo in her 3rd or greater batch, and me in my 2nd, using a high-grade Earl Grey tea from Rishi. Burp! Blog will no doubt also be posting on their kombucha adventures, so be sure to check in on their site! Peef and Lo graciously gave me my SCOBY, and a nicely typed and articulated way of brewing my first batch of kombucha. I started a week ago Sunday, and in 7 days, had a batch of tea ready to be bottled.

In the interim, I read (and still am reading) tons of information on kombucha, SCOBY's, and the health benefits of both, and also more than once have been sucked into reading disaster stories of how natural things can be bad for you. It does appear, however, that "bad kombucha" will only lead to nausea and vomiting, so it's a risk I'm willing to take. It also serves any adventurous kitchen warrior to take extra precautions when handling a SCOBY: clean, non-latex gloved hands, and a clean environment just make good sense. Another rule of thumb for kitchen experimenters is if it looks funny, smells funny or grows fuzzy mold, best not to chance it and throw it away. Also, I went a step further and after reading about PH levels, decided that I should test for my acid content prior to bottling.

To purchase snazzy swing-top bottles, I visited Northen Brewer. I had never heard of Northern Brewer, and was glad I could not (even with iPhone's help) locate my original destination and had to call my home-brewing friend, Mr. Mork - R1's husband. I have never considered brewing beer myself or even getting that excited about brewing/fermenting, but I guess in the course of culturing buttermilk, yogurt, vegan cashew cheese and sour creams the seeds were planted. This shop was so infinitely inspiring. They had a whole "Grain Room" and refrigerated liquid yeasts from Europe! I got a class sheet, and their catalog to peruse wort chillers and glass lab equipment like a crazy person over my breakfast.

Beer is just fine, but I don't go out of my way to drink it most of the time, and here I am daydreaming over descriptions of hops! I called up Mr. Mork, and asked when his next brewing session would be since now I just have to learn more (without becoming totally committed to home-brew craft all by myself). We set a date for next week, and I am going in like a sponge to soak up all the hands-on information I can on beer brewing, and I hope to have a series of posts on my observations!

The Northern Brewer employee that helped me was completely knowledgeable and the perfect person to continue inspiring me. He was interested not only in fermenting beer, but in lacto-fermentation of pickles and ginger beer plant. I didn't realize at the time we were talking that the Ginger Beer uses the exact same process to ferment as kombucha! He convinced me, easily by the way, to invest in a product called StarSan to sterilize my jars. I did the math, and for a half gallon of water, I only need a single teaspoon of this sanitizer as a rinse for my bottles. I went ahead and sterilized everything I used in a half gallon bowl of sanitizing rinse: funnel, ladle and finally my clean and ready to be refilled 1 gallon glass tea jar.

The next day, I returned to purchase PH testing strips and while waiting to consult with him, overheard him assisting a new home-brewer. He told him it isn't the end result that home-brewing exists for, that it is the whole process of brewing that leads up to the end result. "A Machiavellian approach to life" is how he put it, which put a smile on my face to know that I am not alone in my gusto for reading more into the culinary world than meets the common eye.

He also said that testing my acid levels probably wasn't "necessary", but would be fun to know - exactly what I thought. An article I read said to prohibit the growth of bad bacterias, the acid levels should be between 2.5 and 4.6, mine checked in at 3.2 on day 7, and tasted fizzy and light without being overwhelmingly vinegary, so I decided to bottle. In two of the bottles, I added a little bit of pure ginger juice, since I read that the inclusion of juices can improve the natural carbonation. In the back of my mind, I wonder what the American Dental Association would think of my consumption of kombucha given it's rather high acid levels, but since I am not a soda drinker, I'm not going to let a daily glass of tea worry me.

I even dipped the bowl that temporarily held my SCOBY in sanitizer...

I got 4 16 oz. bottles, and about 3/4 of a quart jar of bottled tea, saving out at least 1/2 c. of tea and the SCOBY for the next batch. I was impressed at how thick the SCOBY got in just 7 days. I had almost no trouble separating it, but it did tear just a little. Aready, it appears to be mending itself.

Second batch, day 2: the baby SCOBY.

I was also reading that if you want to start your own kombucha and are not fortunate as I was to know someone with an extra SCOBY to get you started, you can take a bottle of purchased kombucha and let a culture begin on it's own. I was a little skeptical that this could work, until I did my own bottling. My quart jar has been out on the counter for two days (I moved it to the refrigerator today), and you can begin to see the growth of a new SCOBY near the top of the photo:

I imagine if you take a bottle of purchased kombucha, pour it into a sterilized glass bottle, and leave it at room temperature, you may discover that it can produce a baby SCOBY. If not, do a bit of research and I'm sure you will be able to find someone willing to share. The keys to any successful project of this sort are research, first person "wisdom of the ages", as the Northern Brewer employee put it, Internet/book knowledge, and old-fashioned common sense.

It's always a pleasure to run into other curious minds, and ones that are gonzo experimenters. For that and so many other reasons, blogging has enriched my life. I am lucky to be able to compare notes on this fascinating process with Lo, and as we both continue to gain knowledge and understanding of our little science projects, I'm sure there will be many posts to come. I will leave it to Lo to come up with some killer flavors, since she towers over me in that department... so you can be sure I'll be checking out the Burp! Blog anxiously to see what experimenting they are up to.

I'm also excited to see where my own blog takes me, now that my culturing obsession is moving forward slowly into fermentation. I have a copy of Wild Fermentation on hold from my library, and I'm sure that will only serve to add fuel to the fire. Just when I think there is nothing new on the food horizon for me, something steps in, confirming to me all the more that I am doing exactly what I should be doing at this point in my life... experimenting, reading, testing and writing about food from the standpoint of my small kitchen.

Adventures in Saltware...

It doesn't take much effort for me to get excited about experimentation in my kitchen. I actually found it hard to sleep the other night after the Salt Block cooking class, just imagining what fun I'd have playing around the next day. My first order of business was to get some better looking photos with a full charge on my batteries and some much appreciated sun coming in the dining room window.

That miserable looking spider plant on the right may do well to soak up some much needed light in its new location: I've had it since high school, and this is the final piece.

The first thing I needed to do was bring the Saltware up to temperature slowly. Since this was my first experience, I may have been a bit overly cautious, and waited a full ten minutes from the time I heard the *beep* signaling the increase, before inching up 20 degrees at a time. As I had started at 200 degrees, this seemed to be taking a while. I used my favorite timer, pictured below.

Around 300 degrees, I started to notice that the incremental temperature change seemed to be speeding up. I started to increase by 25 degrees every time I heard the *beep*, and before long, I was finally at the 450 mark. I had formed my small round of bread (from my recipe of stored dough) prior to the oven heat, and made sure to use a small enough amount so it would fit nicely on the 8x8 salt block.

I also took Chef Malavenda's tip of letting the dough rise on parchment, and then sliding it out from under it about 5 minutes after it hit the salt - making sure that the dough was set enough that it wouldn't move. I think the bread turned out fine, but not too noticeably different than the breads I usually cook on a stone. I also noticed the flavor wasn't noticeably different, but I'm wondering if I shouldn't crank the oven up to 500 next time, and try and slide the dough right onto the slab.

It was delicious bread, and because I used no steam in the oven, the crust was nicely chewy. The interior texture was about normal, if not a little more moist, and it was very, very tasty. I even ate some today with butter (something that never happens in the privacy of my own home), after Chef Malavenda said to store unsalted butter on a slab of salt, since it slowly draws out the flavor.

I decided I had to make fried eggs for supper, since I had fresh bread, some local Saxon cheese, and a still warm salt slab. I began my oven heat increments a bit faster, since the block was still fairly warm to the touch, and when I hit 450 degrees I placed the stone stovetop on top of a sheet pan, just in case.

As soon as the salt slab was in place, I poured some extra virgin olive oil, and brushed it around evenly. I knew immediately this was the proper choice for my inaugural egg-frying experience. The fruity, mineraly steam that rose from the salt was intoxicatingly good. I quickly opted for further insurance, and used egg rings until the eggs were just barely set. I wasn't sure just how hot the stone actually was, and was a bit worried that they would run a little too much.

Just a quick sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, and a quick bat of my right hand by my left out of the salt dish... old habits are hard to change! You can kind of see in the above photo how the salt seemed to "crack" under the weight of the oil and eggs - it even seemed to have changed color when the eggs were removed. It is so interesting to see how natural products change as you use them! (It also reminded me of when GOP and I decided to crack an egg onto the black, hot asphalt of the next door bank parking lot one particularly scorching summer's day. It did not work, if you're wondering...)

After the photo, I remembered the cheese!

Perfectly salted fried eggs, with dreamily runny yolks were my reward! I was so excited at the taste of these eggs on their own, I couldn't even bring myself to add my usual hot sauce. I gratefully lapped up all of the yolks off the plate with the help of a bit more bread, and called it a night.

After a few hours, the Saltware was still warm, but cool enough to handle. I gingerly ran it under warm water to clean it, and towel dried it before leaving it to air on a wire rack overnight, again intrigued at the feel of such a mass of salt under warm, running water. I also remembered that in my last post about the Saltware class, I shamefully neglected to mention the POSH salt founder, Linda Castelli.

She was a Registered Nurse and then a lawyer before finding her passion for salt, and indeed inventing the concept of using the salt to actually cook food, instead of just flavoring the food with the salt. These slabs come in a variety of sizes, and even have been custom fit to line pizza ovens and table side grills of adventuresome restaurants. As long as you are careful, the slabs appear to last a long time, and I can't help but draw the similarity to a human being: resilient and sturdy, yet inelastic and fragile. Perhaps it's due to our own salt content that has increased our in interests in baking salts, cooking salts, finishing salts and now Saltware. Whatever the reason, you can be sure that the hype is very deserved, and that I certainly will be doing a whole lot more experimentation!