Cheese Profile: New Zealand Cheddar

Friday, February 26, 2010

-A charmer to be sure.-

Who wants to take home a B-List cheddar? When Fiscalini Bandage Cheddar or Reade's are so trendy no one wants to be seen with something from from nowhere, California; or worse, Kraft. (So D-List.)

It's obvious to see why the A-Listers in the cheddar world are such stars. Lincolnshire Poacher is meaty, it has cojones and can stand up to any food or drink you pair at it. Grafton, a popular Vermont cheddar, representin' the East Side of US cheddars, is smooth and a little bit sweet. Westcombe is tame and a tad bit floral, which makes it either the black sheep or white lamb of the cheddars (and either way you lean it's still tasty with a slice of apple).

Yet one has to give a little bit of attention to New Zealand cheddar. Flavorful and firm. A reliable cow's milk cheese. That's what this cheddar is: all-purpose cheddar.

Affordable, amenable, it's a good cheddar to take home to mom. Not so sharp that it'll scare her off like bringing home an ex-convict boyfriend named Tattoo, but not so mild that she'll politely excuse herself to commit suicide in the kitchen from boredom. New Zealand cheddar possesses a soft, but reserved, texture, and offers eyebrow-raising repartee at the dinner table.

And, oh my, it does love the table. Grilled cheese, gougères, fondu; it does it all and charms you with sultry looks and quick kisses when no one's looking.

It proves to you that it deserves equal treatment to the likes of A-List cheddars.

Move over Grafton, I'm taking New Zealand home with me.

-Tasty, delicious cheddar cheesy poofs.-

Kumquat Tea and Trivial Things

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

-Keep your lemon tea. My tea rolls with kumquats.-

I have too many frickin' kumquats. Seriously, you have no idea. I have been deluged by them to the point that I've had to become more and more creative with recipes. Heck, I've been giving away pounds of them. Literally, pounds.

So when I stumbled upon Todd and Diane's recipe for kumquat tea, I was relieved. One can hardly call it a recipe due to its simplicity, one may find more difficulty in rubbing their belly while patting their head at the same time.

Now recently things have been hectic, well irritating, to say the least. Not so much now as it was a month ago, but there are tiny bits of chaotic annoyance. These little things, fallout from the fire, like dirty corners where ragged dust balls collect because you missed a spot in your sweeping appear. A forgotten bill, the realization that the cleaners lost the cake pan, where are my glov - oh yes! burned to the ground, and the cheese grater still hasn't been replaced yet.

Individually, they're of little concern. Trivial worries you can shoo away and best with a stamp of your foot. Yet, when they occur on a near daily basis, these small concerns congeal into problems, mesh into worries which claw deep inside to the front of your mind making it a delicate and crammed chrysalis of stress.

Yet in the simplest thing we can find solace. This kumquat tea - so ideal, so healing, and so simple I can barely contain the laughter it stirs within me for being so blind to never have grasped at such a solution, a bright kumquat colored ribbon flapping in front of me.

Its lightness on the tongue and bright flavor, as if you were staring into the sun, seem to banish the gravity of things. Sweet, cirtusy, a new twist on the classic cold cure and flavorful tissane of lemon tea.

-Perfect to fight off the gravity.-

Sticky Bun Trauma

Saturday, February 20, 2010

-Worth mastering.-

I was twelve when I first made cinnamon rolls, yet the trauma continues to haunt me as I wake up from cinnamon swirled nightmares in a cold sweat. I was naive when I attempted that project at that age. Having little kitchen experience I jumped into a realm of baking that was totally unknown to me and the resulting fractures on my psyche, like hard cracks running the length of old driftwood where the slightest touch will cause the whole branch to buckle and collapse, left me brittle and scarred.

Now you have to understand that my baking experience up to this point was making chocolate chip cookies with my mom. This was going to be the creation of a risen dough on my own. I didn't even know what yeast was. Yet here I was expected to make it eat ("The weird powder can eat?"), grow ("Why is the milk becoming all foamy?"), and rise ("I think we covered rising and yeast in sex ed?").

Furthermore, this would also require me to use a rolling pin, create a frosting, develop a filling and roll said filling up into the dough. The whole concept was foreign to me and I realized quickly that I was way over my head. The whole process took me hours, not including rising and baking.

The results were tasty. Ugly, but tasty. Yet I was left tired, pissed off, and haggard. I would happily stick with Pillsbury cinnamon rolls from then on out for the coming years. Easy and I found joy in that surprising pop the tube made which made me jump every time.

I would never, ever bake homemade cinnamon rolls again.

Now, at 26, I finally found the brass to give it another go. I had been nervous all these years to repeat what was stuck in my memory as horrid baking trauma, as if someone had scooped out my eyes with a baking knife, or flour-boarded me. The thought of attempting it again sends me into relapse where I would curl into a ball and rock myself into a corner. "No more rolling. No more rolling!" Yet, one must meet such fears with steely eyes and a Silpat.

-Bring it, sticky buns! I'll kick your maple glazed ass. (Or, uh, buns?)-

This time I knew what to expect. I knew how to encourage my yeast. I knew how to coerce and cajole basic breakfast dough to the shape I wanted. I had the tools and the know how. I was going to go and make not cinnamon rolls this time, but maple pecan rolls. Something memorable. Something different to set this moment apart from the last.

However, we hit some snags ingredients wise. There was a lot of substitution; salted butter, low fat milk, almond and walnuts for there were no pecans (pecans are expensive and don't grow on trees... well, for free... near me...). Anywhose, one way or another it all worked out, and after a stern lecture Roommate and BF know to replace my baking ingredients if they use them or face my total bitchiness and naggapocalypse.

I was able to bam these out in the background while I churned out pages of my thesis. Each step a small respite from grinding research and quote hunting, while I tried to locate an appropriate pan to bake them in - my cake pans had not survived the fire - in my head I was constructing an argument for how recipes are a type of rhetoric utilized to construct identity and blah, blah, blah. (My writing this post right now is, actually, a study break.)

So the sticky buns turned out great. Much easier to do this time. I had gotten over my fear of sticky buns and the results were warm, sweet, with maple sugar dripping down your chin in every nut studded bite. They made the continuing research easier though the library won't be please that some of the pages of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things now stick together.

Still, if they saw these buns *insert joke* they would understand, as would Foucault. Plus, I think my twelves year old self feels vindicated for his earlier trauma. Sometimes one simply must face their baking fears by rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty.

-Not pictured: writhing black tendrils of nightmare fueled trauma.-

(The recipe came from Cindy Mushet's The Art & Soul of Baking, probably the best baking book I have ever picked up. I encourage you to grab a copy. You will not regret it.)

Cheese Profile: Cave Aged Swiss Gruyere

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

-"You may want to sit down for this."-

Dear John,

I'm sorry, but this isn't working out. We're not working out.

It hasn't felt right for a long time now, and I want to be fair to you and tell you the truth about how I feel. Dragging this out because I'm afraid of talking about it, or because I don't want to hurt your feelings would be the worst thing to do.

I guess I've been feeling this way for some time now. The signs have all been there and I guess I'm only confronting them now.

There was the time you asked me to trip a girl scout so you could help her up and score a box of free cookies. How you drunk dial my sister after too much wine, even though she's sitting at the same table right across from you. And the fact that I spend my Friday nights alone while you and the guys see how many Fritos you can fit in your nose is one thing, but while that was funny when we were in college, doing that at my grandmother's funeral 5 years later was simply embarrassing.

The passion is waning, unlike the taste of that cave aged Gruyere we tasted in the Swiss Alps when things were good. Its musky scent and creamy, ivory color were so reminiscent of the pure but animal attraction that once existed between us.

-"This turns me on. You do not."-

And while our love was once complex like that Gruyere's, owing to its use of raw sheep's milk, it's now flat and tepid. That cheese eclipsed "us" with deep toasted and meaty flavors. A tang that's more like a twang, a dialect that has passion and character like we once did when we whispered to each other in bed.

I want to be in a perfect pair the way that cheese was for those strong olives and fig jam we had when we stayed up late talking about our future. Now you don't even take my hand or listen to me. We're two separate people now rather than a unit like a couple should be.

I want a connection that pops like the lactic crystals embedded in that tightly bound and dense Gruyere. I want a relationship where we try new things like cave aged Gruyere grilled cheese sandwiches with caramelized onions and jam on sourdough bread; or making a fondue with the Gruyere mixed with some Emmenthaler, mustard, white wine, and caramelized shallots with a hint of nutmeg.

Please don't contact me. I'll talk to you when I'm ready.

I will be at my mother's. She has crackers.


-Admit it, you would leave your loved one for this. Or maybe for some tall, dark, and handsome Cheddar.-

Preserved Kumquats (Goddammit)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

-If you turn your head and squint you can hear the sound effects from Pac-Man.-

The way I see it swearing is totally acceptable in certain situations, if not encouraged. In some cases this might be after getting a paper cut or when your computer inexplicably crashes. It might be finding out that that new camera you purchased last week is now on sale for a unheard of low price of sweet-mother-f***er-if-I-only-waited-a-week. These are all good times to swear up a storm so harsh that nearby children cry, Lovecraftian gods are summoned, adults suffer spontaneous nosebleeds, and paint curls off the walls.

Another good time for colorful language like this is when you realize all the canning you did in the last year - the jams, jellys, pickles, tinctures, and liquors - have all been destroyed. Not only were these little homemade delicacies for your enjoyment, but they existed as Christmas and birthday gifts for friends and family. All now gone.

That, dear readers, is a damn good reason to curse like a rebellious Catholic school girl.

The day I realized this particular loss I began to swear at the fire like a madman. I used the word "asshole" more than a bunch of proctologists at a rectal convention. Seriously, it wasn't pretty.

However, one can only swear so much before finally getting over oneself and fixing the problem.

Luckily, here in California, it's the peak of kumquat season and the local kumquat tree is in total hardcore bloom. The green branches are so emblazoned with huge orange clusters of what have to be the biggest kumquats I've ever seen that they're beginning to sag and break.

-Sucks to be you, East Coast.-

A perfect time to start preserving and pickling and jamming once again. Candied kumquats, kumquat salsa, and pickled kumquats... they're all being churned out here and being canned as fast as my little hands can put them together.

However, I've added a new kumquat recipe to my repertoire. These piquant citrus fruits are being preserved this time, the same way you might preserve a lemon. The end result will be fragrant, floral, bits of kumquat that can grace the most delicate baked fish, layered into a grilled cheese, or diced into a salad.

As one who doesn't own a lemon tree and therefore isn't "burdened" (who are you kidding lemon tree owners?) with an overabundance of fruit it's a nice alternative. Quirky and unique - it sets my kitchen and dishes apart from others and is a fine way to begin restocking the larder.

-It's hard to swear when you taste one of these, but it's fun to give it a shot anyways. Fun game for the kids.-

Preserved Kumquats
The below is a rough recipe. It's easy enough that you can just toss it together so don't fret about making it or specifics. I made a a few jars in a few sizes and basically kept going until I ran out of kumquats.

Kosher salt
lemon juice (about 2 lemons worth for every 1/2 pint jar)
Spices (optional; I used peppercorns, a bay leaf, and a cinnamon stick)

1. Place a tablespoon of salt at the bottom of a sterilized jar.

2. One by one, prepare the kumquats in the following way. Pick off any protruding stems, then cut the kumquats as if you were going to cut them in half lengthwise, starting from the tip, but do not cut all the way. Keep the kumquat attached at the base. Make another cut in a similar manner, so now the lemon is quartered, but again, attached at the base. (These were big kumquats, smaller ones you should only have to cut once.)

3. Pack the inside of the kumquat generously with salt.

4. Pack the kumquats in the jar, squishing them down so that juice is extracted. Fill up the jar with kumquats. Add the lemon juice to top them off and add an extra few tablespoons of salt.

5. Seal the jar and let sit at room temperature for a couple days. Turn the jar upside down occasionally. Put in refrigerator and let sit, again turning upside down occasionally, for at least 2 weeks.

6. To use wash off the excess salt and use as needed. Store for up to 6 months.

-Pictured: giving house fires the finger.-

Kumquat trees (grow very well in cold climates) - Four Winds Growers
Candied Kumquats - Simply Recipes
Kumquat Salsa - Simply Recipes
Pickled Kumquats

The Garden Potential

Thursday, February 11, 2010

-These are the "Before" pictures.-

Honestly, I'm not sure what makes me keep trying to garden. My notorious black thumb, a dark cloud that envelopes green life and with wave ends it, is stubborn, but eager to change its color.

My friend, Sarah, an avid gardener with a knowledge of Greek mythology once referred to me as "Demeter's Harbinger." I find that to be a bit harsh, but given it was after the death of my third rosemary plant, which was soon met in greenery heaven with a cactus that committed suicide rather than face a prolonged and, no doubt, horrible suffering under my hands, the kind of which government war tribunals are held over. Then there was that orchid that never stood a chance.

But I'm getting better. Honestly. Remember that lemongrass? It's still alive, and though it may not look it in the dead of winter as it's gone a bit back and bare I have been reassured by other, more experienced gardener's that I have done surprisingly well. I even have a mint and rosemary bush in pots at my work that are flourishing.

(The thyme, basil, and rhubarb we will not speak of. I say frost and kids on skateboards are to blame and that's how we're remembering it.)

My old place wasn't much for growing anything. Too much shade and the earth was shallow and dead. What few things I tried to grow simply passed away in what can only be described as an awful struggle.

Yet the new apartment has pleasant and quaint small yard, though it was somewhat uncared for. When we moved in it was an utter jungle, and upon our signing the lease we conditioned that the yard had to be cleared of brush and tangle.

The day the gardeners came they uttered, "Sweet Jesus," followed by screams when upon ripping up the carpet of ivy rats swarmed out, escaping under the fence. Joseph Conrad couldn't have portrayed it any darker than it actually was: the brush, destruction, and gnashing of teeth that became a backyard cleansing - five feet by fifteen.

So now we have an empty and unappealing (at least, to the eye who doesn't see a potential garden) spot of dirt with various stones and rotted plants of wood buried here and there. To make my stake in this yard-to-be I've decided to move my lemongrass, rosemary, and mint plants from work to here.

-Not sure what Korea marmalade is, but I dig the idea of it.-

Furthermore, I have adopted two brave little (and unwilling) citrus trees. A two year-old yuzu, and a three year-old kaffir lime tree are potted and on my patio. Both of these citrus I use extensively when I am able to locate them and are favorites of mine. The kaffir lime leaves add a unique floral-lime fragrance to soups and curries, whereas the yuzu provides sour-tartness to stirfrys and whose juice can withstand extreme heat without scorching and becoming bitter.

A Nagami kumquat or Rangpur tree may very well be added to the mix.

To ensure their survival I have been studying and researching like a crazy person on how to keep these little bastard healthy. Lucky, living in Northern California, the climate here is very citrus friendly (though not like So Cal) and I expect that they should thrive with proper care.

*knock on wood*

Be sure to wish me luck, and whisper a little prayer for this garden that is partially under my doomgaze.

-Or makrud lime leaves. We've had this discussion.-

Cheese Profile: Petit Basque

Monday, February 8, 2010

-Petit Basque is one of those perfect little sheep cheeses you'll pick up again and again.-

"I've got a challenge for you, cheesemonger."

"Oh yeah? Bring it on," he said with brass in his voice.

"I need a good cheese that can stand on its own. Something that'll wow my guests, and make my friends roll their eyes back into their grins. A cheese that doesn't just dance on the tongue but does the hustle in platform shoes."

"Is that all? You dragged me out here for this? Why any good gouda or swiss can do that. Go grab a wedge of Vella Dry Jack and leave me be!" he chastised, waving me on my way.

"Wait, wait! Who said I was finished? This cheese should also stand up to a bowl of spicy chili con carne, one laden with smoked chipotle peppers, garlic, and cumin. It needs to be a cheese with gusto. Something with punch to fight the kick of the chili."

"Punch and kick? So you want something wu-shu sharp?"

"Not too sharp, I have a few friends who are white belts when it comes to cheese so no wise and ancient cheddars, otherwise it'll be a chili-cheese K.O."

"Try this," he said as he handed me a delicate slice of cream colored cheese. "It's called Petit Basque, made in the Basque region of France. A sheep's milk cheese that's nicely muted."

-"Your tongue's mine now, bitch."-

"Very much so, this sublime and low-key sheepiness shouldn't scare anyone away. It's definitely a beginner's sheep." It swirled around and took control of my mouth. It's a cheese that tells you to submit like a good masseuse and you do, happily.

"You'll notice that it smells of caramel, but the closer you get to the rind the salty-sweet nut flavors give way to the taste of brown butter. Now if that doesn't give your chili some flavor, a way to balance all that heat-"

"And there's a lot of it."

"-then this is what you want."

I picked up a wedge and tucked it into my basket between the bread and bag of lemons. "Well played, cheesemonger. Well played."

-Always trust your cheesemonger.-


Friday, February 5, 2010

-The best damn part? It matches my walls.-

I don’t like having shit in my house. I’m very anti-packrat and every few months I go through a purge and try to eliminate whatever is in my place that doesn’t get used, hasn’t been used, or is simply taking up space. Less baggage means less to worry about, and the fewer concerns I have the more focused I can be to the things that matter in life. Plus, let’s be honest, who wants to move a 15 pound bread maker that only gets used once every few years?

The fire was the ultimate purge. Ironically, clarity came best when the smoke was the thickest (also came panic, coughing, and a nasty smell that’s a total bitch to get out of your linens; but that’s this post). I learned exactly what I needed in life. The things that were most valuable were instantly known.

Here’s a complete list of what was saved: the cats; my safe which contained my social security card, passport, blank checks, backup hard-drive, etc.; my laptop which contained pictures, four years of school documents, all of my thesis work, and tons of blog info.

I was able to crystallize in about two seconds what I could not live without or what would have caused my life to not just turn upside down, but absolutely decimate it in ways that are akin to how major cities are treated in a film by Michael Bay.

These were the needs in my life. Defined, simple, and all of them able to fit in the back seat of my car with room leftover.

Now that I'm rebuilding I am assessing my other needs. My need for shelter and food has been been met and so I move on to my more superficial and occupational needs. Things like pots and pans, spices, furniture, a good bottle of wine or two.

Yes, a good bottle of wine or two. A day after the fire pounding a bottle of wine with a whiskey back was a need. Now, it's a need. (The wine, not the whiskey. Unless it's been one of those days.)

Some might argue that some things such as wine or a new Le Creuset pot (to replace the one lost in the fire) aren't needs but rather wants.

A good point. Yet, we have to remember that needs are circumstantial, circumspect, and what may seem frivolous to me may be requisite for another.

For example, do I need an electric mixer? Yes and no. Yes, in that my hobbies, work, and blog sort of necessitate needing one which, all and all, gives me pleasure which is an indispensable part of a healthy life. No, in that will life end without it? Of course not, though life without my Granny Smith green Kitchen-Aid mixer is certainly debatable. (My chocolate chip cookies bring gods to tears, so no, actually, it’s not.)

Pinking shears are silly to me, but to the avid scrap-booker, they are your tools. A heart monitor to a triathlete. Leather gloves to a gardener. Cocktails to Sandra Lee. These are all needs.

Of course, in all of these examples people can make do and move on, find solutions to the drama that ensues without their needs being met. Yet they make us whole, they may just be things but they're those little ingredients that make our situations just right. They don't need to be justified. Needs are personal and only we know what they really are.

In the end we know what our needs, needs, and wants are. Our needs are our family portraits, our needs are our tools or joys, our wants are memberships to the Cowgirl Creamery cheese club. (Though that might be just me.)

I've been lucky. My needs were saved. My insurance and the generosity of others have helped me meet my other needs, and to my surprise and gratitude a few wants. They've put life back into a state of normalcy albeit at a new address.

As long as we know what our real needs are - the ones that won't cause life to collapse in on us like a dying star - then we're well on our way to defining what our other needs are. Once those are addressed, we can move on to the bittersweet world of wants.

Seasoning Your Molcajete

Monday, February 1, 2010

-Pictured: The leading cause of deaths on airplanes.-

One of the things I was determined to pick up in Mexico was a molcajete - a traditional mortar and pestle carved from volcanic rock. I've never been one for kitschy trinkets so if I want to bring something home from a trip I try to make sure it's something practical that I'll actually utilize. That way every time I use it I can remember the good times I had.

Upon purchasing it I was given a set of instructions on how to season it since the bowl had only been freshly carved a few days ago and was a total mess. The inside felt like sandpaper and the slightest touch left your hands stained black with oily soot.

The following is my own altered set of instructions which every American, and probably Canadian and Englander, should utilize should they find themselves in possession of a new molcajete.

Step One: Get it Into the Country

Due to people armed with nail clippers and crotch bombs this is surprisingly difficult to do, even when you're checking your bag. Apparently the pestle is seen as two types of dangers to Air Marshals and the U.S. Government. The first being, I kid you not, an agricultural hazard. Volcanic bowls are apparently so hot they're viral.

The second is a fear that in the middle of the flight I may rummage through my carry-on, grab the pestle, and then go postal and use some little old lady's skull as a mortar, mashing her brains into a salmon colored dip for tortilla chips before taking out the other passengers.

Step Two: Once state-side convince U.S. customs that, no, you are no going to use the bowl as a weapon.

I claimed my bag in the U.S. and was told to check it again for the next plane from Phoenix to Sacramento. Apparently lobbing a stone bowl like a softball at a little league game is a leading cause of death on planes. Seriously, they actually said that I might try to crush someone's head with it. I told them I had a book to keep my attention which would prevent me from killing someone. They took this as a valid reason to let me carry on the bag.

No, I'm not kidding.

Step Three: Soak

Get a large stock or soup pot and fill it with warm water. Place the bowl inside it and let it soak for about an hour. This will help lift and soften the outer layer of volcanic dust and loose rock.

Step Four: Scrub It Like You're Cinderella

This dust is surprisingly fine and greasy and will get everywhere. At this point you should be wearing an apron or some clothes you once though were cool but can't seem to give up. (For me this is a tight pink t-shirt that says "Learn How to Pimp!" and seemed like a smart purchase when I was nineteen.) Get a wire brush and go at it from all sides for about 15 minutes or until your hands no longer become black at the touch of it.

-Warning: If you suffer from arthritis or heart problems, find someone else to do this job.-

Step Five: Grind Rice

Place a few tablespoons of rice and a tablespoon or two of water into the bowl and begin pestling like you'll win a prize. Keep grinding until the rice is a fine paste. Your arm will get sore. Your elbow may need a pin in it afterwards. The purpose of this is to smooth out the inside of the bowl and polish it up a bit.

Step Six: Mash Garlic

This is to season the bowl and put a little bit of oil into the rock. By far the most fun part as it's easy to grind and smells wonderful.

Your bowl is now ready for whatever you're gonna mash into it. I highly suggest grabbing some avocados, a key lime, and some cilantro and making yourself some guacamole. At this point you've worn out your arm, your hand is numb, and you're probably on a government "No Fly" list - you deserve it!

-Damn, this thing was a bitch to photograph.-

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