Event wrap-up

Today (March 11, 2012), we held a maple syrup tasting at the Pittsfield Grange, and it was a lot of fun! Maple syrup is one of the great examples of terroir – the way the conditions of a specific location affect the flavor of particular foods. Over 30 people came to try a slew of syrups, dipping pieces of pancakes as saucers of sweet goodness were passed around the table.

Trio of syrups...and a few pancake crumbs

Trio of Michigan syrups...and a few pancake crumbs

We tasted 11 different syrups: nine from Michigan, two from Canada, and one from Indiana.  Since this year’s batches of syrups are still being made, most of these were actually made in 2011 – only one was from this year’s batch. There were light syrups and dark. Some were created by boiling over wood fires and others that began by removing some of the water by reverse osmosis.  Some came from huge commercial sugarbushes, some from small mom-and-pop operations, and one came from an individual’s back yard and cooked on the stove.  We also tried hickory syrup, made near Adrian.  (This is made from the bark, water, and sugar – not sap.)

Folks found they all had different likes and dislikes.  Some preferred lighter flavors; others preferred a more robust flavor.  The people who like really strong, complex flavors also tended to like the hickory syrup more than folks who like the lighter syrups.  Most folks agreed that the syrups that were predominantly sweet, with little complexity, were just plain boring.  And the only people who liked the super-cheap syrup bought at Sam’s Club (which was super-sweet and thick, and so stridently maple-y that many folks thought it had artificial flavor) were under the age of 12.

There were several syrups that elicited uniformly positive responses.  We didn’t come up with an all-over crowd favorite, but here were some of the top contenders:

  • Appleschram.  This orchard in mid-Michigan is more generally known for its cider and pastured pork, but their maple syrup was a crowd favorite.  A fairly dark syrup, the group described it as tasting “a bit like caramel, almost smoky, with a strong finish.” We found it at the Ann Arbor Food Co-op.
  • Shady Maple Organic.  This medium-dark syrup is from Quebec – home of 75% of the world’s maple syrup production.  Not quite as popular as the Appleschram and Kelly’s (below), it still had its devotees, especially among the light-syrup aficionados.  Despite being lighter in flavor, it was fairly rich and complex, with smoky undertones.  This is a fairly easy syrup to find; we got ours an the Ann Arbor Food Co-op.
  • The most resounding and uniform praise came for a pair of syrups from The Kelly’s in Dexter. Literally a mom-and-pop syrup operation, the Kelly’s tap their trees with tubing and boil it over a wood fire.  We tried both light and dark syrups from 2011, and most people loved one or both.  The flavors were noticeably more complex than most of the other syrups.  The dark syrup (from the end of the season – early-season sap yields lighter syrup) had an almost molasses-like flavor.  Neither came across as being overly sweet, which was preferred by most tasters.  Do yourself a favor and seek them out at the Dexter and Saline farmers’ markets – it’s really a treat!

Overall, it was hard to discern hard-and-fast trends to finding a really good syrup.  More people preferred darker syrups (often marked grade B) than light ones (grade A).  More of the small sugarbushes had lots of fans, compared to the big commercial sugarbushes – but two of the small varieties were considered “boring” and one of the big ones was liked quite a bit.  Even production type wasn’t necessarily a deciding factor – some of the wood-fired ones were great, and some were so-so, and reverse osmosis wasn’t a “big bad,” either.

Hi, folks –

Lest you think Preserving Traditions hasn’t done anything recently, let me assure you that my lack of blogging has simply been because a) I’ve been busy teaching all summer and b) in last year’s survey, event write-ups were lower on everyone’s list of priority…so I let myself slack off some. 🙂

However! I’ve had several requests for materials from today’s workshop, so here goes:

The basic idea of root cellaring is to work with nature to keep food fresh through the winter so you can eat it in March (or June) without canning or freezing it. This can be as simple as setting a squash on a shelf – you just have to store the food in the correct temperature and humidity (usually “as close to freezing as possible and very humid”) with plenty of good air circulation.

Here’s a simplified chart of common foods, and the conditions in which to store them.

Foods Conditions Containers Location
Garlic, onions, winter squash, sweet potatoes Dark, cool (45-55), and dry. Don’t let these get below 40. Mesh bags, baskets, or open shelving Unfinished basement, unheated breezeway, under-heated bedroom
White* potatoes, apples, lactofermented foods Dark, cold (35-45), and humid. Baskets, with layers of newspaper between single layers of produce Root cellar, garage, shed, enclosed porch
White potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, beets, carrots Dark, cold (35-45), and damp Buckets or tubs, layered with damp peat moss, sand, or wood shavings Root cellar, garage, shed, enclosed porch
Cabbage Dark, cold (35-45), and damp Set stem end into damp sand; cover loosely with paper or plastic Root cellar, garage, shed, enclosed porch

*White, as opposed to sweet, potatoes can be white, red, purple, or yellow – they all store the same as each other. Sweet potatoes are a different plant family and have totally different storage conditions

Different varieties of vegetables have different storage properties. This is especially important for cabbage and apples.  Choose small, dense cabbages with lots of dark green “wrapper” leaves still attached.  Large, looser head of “kraut” or “slaw” cabbage will keep for a few weeks, but not all winter like “storage” varieties.  For apples, store varieties that are picked late in the fall, not summer apples.  Cameo and Honeycrisp are good keepers.

Don’t store damaged produce. Cure potatoes, squash, and sweet potatoes for a few days in a warm, dry spot out of direct sunlight before storing.  Check your stores frequently, and if anything looks like it’s starting to go bad, remove it immediately. You can often cut out the bad part and eat the rest, but don’t leave it in the cellar – what they say about “one bad apple” is very true!

Can’t find ideal conditions?

  • What’s most important are conditions immediately around the food. A bucket of potatoes in damp peat moss can keep will in a 25 degree, very dry garage, because in the bucket, it’s 35 degrees and humid.
  • Anything will keep for a while if you keep it cool and dark.  So, if your basement is 55 degrees, you’ll be able to keep potatoes for a few months, but they’ll deteriorate faster than if you kept them at 35.  Any food storage is better than none!
  • Try just a few potatoes, onions, and squash and see how long they last in the conditions you’ve got.
  • Two conditions you can’t mess with: don’t let the produce freeze, or it’ll start to rot immediately, and don’t keep it sealed in an air-tight container or room without ventilation.

More resources

Cellaring Books
Root Cellaring Mike Bubel, Nancy Bubel, Pam Art
Build Your Own Underground Root Cellar Phyllis Hobson/Storey Country Wisdom Series
The Complete Root Cellar Book Steve Maxwell/Jennifer MacKenzie      Includes plans for apartments, etc.
Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning Gardeners and Farmer’s Center of Terre Vivant
Complete Guide to Your New Root Cellar Atlantic Publishing Company
The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar Jennfer Megyesi
Cellaring Websites
Organic Gardening/Root Cellar http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/building-root-cellar
Food Storage as Grandma Knew It/New York Time http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/06/garden/06root.html
Return Of The Root Celler http://www.tribwatch.com/rootcell.htm
Root Cellar Basics (great info!) http://www.floydcountyinview.com/rcbasics.html
Seed Savers Founder talks about Saving Seeds In Your Cellar http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-klein/every-seed-has-a-story_b_867122.html
Gardening In Your Rood Cellar http://gomestic.com/gardening/gardening-in-your-root-cellar/
Emily’s blog posts about her own root cellar See “Eat Close to Home” and click the tag “root cellar”

Beans are cheap, healthy, and many varieties are grown in Michigan!  They’re great food, but a lot of people don’t know how to cook with them, or have had bad luck in the past getting them to cook up well. Here are  a few pointers and recipes.

Bean Basics

  • The fresher the bean, the faster it will cook.  Very, very old beans may never get soft.  If you think you can’t cook beans, try starting with fresh beans bought from the co-op; keep them in glass jars at home.
  • For better nutrition, shorter cooking times, and fewer crunchy beans, soak beans in cold water overnight.  Cover the beans with about 3” of water in a glass, plastic, or stainless steel bowl or pot and let stand at least 8 hours.
  • Any “split” bean (split peas, mung daal, split red lentils) and most tiny beans (lentils, black gram daal, adzuki beans) will cook in under an hour without soaking.
  • Beans will foam up when you cook them.  Use a very big pot so they won’t boil over.  You can skim the foam or just ignore it.
  • Add salt, tomatoes, and salty/acidic flavorings toward the end of cooking to avoid toughening the beans’ skins.  Beans seem to benefit from a fairly heavy dose of salt, so if your bean dish doesn’t taste like anything, try adding more salt.
  • Make big batches and store pre-cooked beans in the freezer in recipe-sized portions.  Beans may be pressure canned (only – do not water-bath can!).


Lentil Soup

  • Pour enough oil into a medium saucepan to cover the bottom one lentil deep.
  • Add a chopped onion and 1c. lentils (brown, red, or green).
  • Add 3-4 c. water and a bay leaf; bring to a boil then simmer for 30 mins.  Use more water for soup; use less if serving over rice.
  • The lentils should be mostly done but it’s ok if a couple still have a little crunch.
  • Add 1 tsp. veggie bouillon, or about ½ tsp. salt and herbs to taste.
  • Add 2-3 chopped carrots, greens, and/or a diced potato, if you like.
  • Simmer 15 more minutes until all is cooked.
  • Serve as soup, or over rice, with a vegetable side if you didn’t put the veg into the stew.

Sag Daal (Indian beans and spinach)

  • Cook 1 c. daal (split mung beans, split red lentils, or yellow split peas) in 3c. water and 1 bay leaf until tender. Since you’re using split beans with no hulls, the beans will “puree” themselves as they cook.
  • Saute in oil or ghee 1 small diced onion, 1 tsp. turmeric, ½ tsp. coriander, ½ tsp. cumin, ½ tsp. salt, and a teaspoon each fresh ginger and chopped garlic. Also add ground cayenne pepper to taste.
  • Add the lentils to the toasted spice mixture.
  • Add a bag of fresh or frozen spinach, or a washed and shredded bunch of kale.
  • Cook until greens wilt; serve over rice.


Refried Beans

  • Soak 1 c. of dried pinto or cranberry beans overnight in cold water.
  • Boil the beans with 4-5 cups water and a bay leaf for about an hour or so.  Beans should be very tender. Drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid.
  • Saute a diced onion, two cloves of minced garlic, and a diced fresh chili pepper in oil or lard. (You can substitute dried cayenne pepper in the next step instead of a fresh chili, or leave the chili out for mild beans.)
  • When the onion is soft, add the drained beans and mash with a spatula as you stir.  Add the reserved cooking liquid a tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired consistency.
  • Add salt and dried spices to taste (cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper).


Grange Lecturer Dave Wilson reports on the program at the November meeting

Cottage Food Bill meeting at the Grange

Frank Gublo, of MSU’s Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources gave a talk explaining Michigan’s new Cottage Foods Act, under which it is now legal for private parties to prepare and market certain foods. The topic obviously was of great interest, as we had 45 people in attendance and Frank fielded an enormous number of questions during the course of his presentation.

Frank’s job with the Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources is to help people start up food-related businesses—to get good food ideas out of the kitchen and into the marketplace. Michigan’s Cottage Foods Act is right up his alley, as its purpose is to encourage local food systems and entrepreneurship. He spent most of his talk explaining the practical details of the act such as what home-prepared foods can be sold, where can they be prepared, who can prepare them, how can they be sold, hygiene and sanitation requirements, and what labeling must be used.

Basically, only shelf-stable foods are permitted—foods with low risk for food-borne illness. These include dried herbs, dried pasta, popcorn, chocolate-covered items, cakes, dry bulk items, jams and jellies, breads, cookies, fruit pies, vinegars, coated and uncoated nuts. Foods that are out of bounds include all meats (which are regulated by the USDA), dairy foods (including all cheeses), canned fruits and vegetables, sauerkraut, pickles, and perishables generally.

Foods acceptable under the act must be prepared in single-family kitchens (in homes, apartments, condos); foods made in our Grange hall kitchen would NOT be acceptable, nor would foods prepared in any sort of group community kitchen or in a kitchen in an outbuilding. The act stresses the importance of cleanliness and good hygiene at all stages of food preparation, handling, and marketing, although there is no requirement for periodic official inspections. The cooking area must be free of insects, rodents, and other pests; pets
must be excluded from the area during food processing and handling, proven food processes must be used, and vehicles used for transporting the foods must be clean.

Foods must be prepared by an individual or by members of a family living in the dwelling in which the food is prepared. You cannot invite a few friends over for a session baking cookies or making jellies and sell these items under this act.

Each individual package of food must be labeled with the following information: Name of product; all ingredients; net weight or volume; name and address of business; allergen labeling; and the following statement: “Made in a home kitchen that has not been inspected by the Michigan Department of Agriculture.”

Foods must be sold by the maker directly to the buyer; there can be no middleman. It is not legal for a group of several food makers to assign the job of sales to one of their members. Only in-person sales are permitted. An annual gross sales limit of $15,000 is imposed by the act. And one must comply with all local zoning ordinances and regulations. Frank also advised that people planning to do business under the Cottage Foods Act would be well advised to discuss the liability ramifications with their insurance agent to make sure that they are adequately covered.

For further information, see http://www.michigan.gov/cottagefood, or the Michigan Department of  Agriculture at http://michigan.gov/mda, or MSU’s Extension Service Washtenaw office at http://www.ewashtenaw.org.

Thanks so much, Frank, for a most interesting and relevant program.

And thanks, Dave, for writing up the program!


Presenter Holly White, looking suave, and Emily creating a small buttermilk explosion. Photo by Penny Corbett.

I think our May 2nd workshop was the best workshop ever that didn’t do what was intended. Thirty people attended – our second-best-attended workshop ever – to see how to make three dairy products from scratch: creme fraiche, butter, and mozzarella cheese.

Get the workshop handouts here!

Creme fraiche (sorry, I’m not sure how to do the accents in WordPress…) is often called “French sour cream.” It can be used the way you would sour cream, though it has the advantage of not separating when heated, the way American sour cream does. Making it is simple; mix some cultured buttermilk into cream and let it stand at room temp for 24-48 hours until thickened. (Full details are in the downloadable recipe handout.)

Our presenter, Holly White of the Detroit Zymology Guild, also explained a bit about the two types of buttermilk. The liquid left after you make butter is “true” buttermilk. The kind you buy in the store is “cultured” buttermilk. Both are great in pancakes, but only cultured buttermilk can be used to inoculate other milk to make cultured dairy products like creme fraiche and cheese.


Butter made at home by workshop attendee Penny Corbett. Photo by Penny.

Butter is also quite easy to make at home: just pour cream in a jar and shake. We’ve probably all done this at some point…but Holly explained to us about the importance of “washing” the butter to get all the watery liquid out. Any liquid left in the butter will cause it to spoil more quickly, so you need to press the butter against the sides of a bowl to encourage all the liquid to come out. Rinsing the lump of butter with cold water helps this process, especially early on. It’s easiest to do this if you stop shaking the butter at the “grainy” stage, and before it forms a solid brick.

Finally, we moved on to the cheesemaking…and this is where things went a bit awry. We were aiming for mozzarella, but we ended up with ricotta. The ricotta was delicious, though it was disappointing not to get to stretch the mozzarella. We thought the problem might be with the portable butane burners we used – you need to heat the milk very slowly when making mozzarella, and it was hard to keep the burners at a very low flame.

Well, our intrepid workshop leader Holly spent the better part of the next week experimenting to figure out what happened, and determined that it was the milk that was the problem. The short version is that apparently Calder milk is pasteurized at too high a temperature to make mozzarella. Here’s her assessment of the situation:

I’ve tried 4 more batches with Calder’s “natural” milk, and I get the same result we got on Sunday.  I replaced my citric acid, I tested the rennet and I switched to a double boiler.  Still got ricotta.

I called Calder, and they told me they do low-heat pasteurization.  But the problem is certainly their milk.  This is exactly what happens when it is overheated- it won’t set and you get those little grains for curds.  It’s just that in this case, the overheating happened at the plant.

So I switched brands [of pasteurized milk] and it still didn’t work.  So going forward, I’m not teaching mozzarella unless I can do it with raw milk.  Illegal food workshops, hooray!

I called some chef friends for troubleshooting, and found out from one of them that Zingermann’s uses raw milk in their mozzarella workshops.  Interesting, huh?  And that they also use commercial curds to make their “in-house” cheeses.

Holy cow. The fancy-schmancy local creamery uses pre-made curds to make their mozzarella? Interesting, indeed!

I intend to have another cheese workshop in a few months featuring cheeses that are less fussy about their milk – paneer, farmer’s cheese, etc. I will test the recipes with readily-available milk products.

A question for the peanut gallery: If we can’t get commercial pasteurized milk to make a decent cheese, would you rather I used raw milk (which is hard to find and quite expensive) or just not have another cheese workshop at all?

Way back in March, we had a workshop on condiments. Several folks have reported back to me with the results of their experiments, and I have been neglectful in posting them. With no further ado, here are some of our favorites:

Suzie’s Fat-Free Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 2 Tbl. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbl. spicy prepared mustard (a dijon mustard works well)
  • 1-2 Tbl. white vinegar
  • 1-2 Tbl. water

This is especially good if there’s bleu cheese in your salad, but then it’s not fat-free any more. 😉

Julie’s Balsamic Mustard

Julie took the basic grainy mustard recipe and jazzed it up a bit:

  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
  • 3 Tbl brown mustard seeds

Combine and let sit overnight; the next day, blend in the blender to crack the mustard seeds. Here’s what Julie says about it:

The mustard I made with the balsamic vinegar, EVOO and brown mustard seeds TOTALLY ROCKS!  The entire family loves it.  Since it was already on the spicy side I just took the other odds and ends of spicy and dijon mustards from the refrig, stirred them in, and they are now all consolidated into a fabulous all purpose mustard.  I can’t imagine ever buying prepared mustard again, this was so easy and the results were so unexpectedly stupendous!

Julie’s Balsamic-Orange Peel Dressing

Vinaigrettes can be made by combining equal parts oil, vinegar, and water, buy you can play with the particulars with stunning results. Here’s Julie’s variation:

  • 2 Tbl. Balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbl. Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbl. Honey
  • Fresh lemon thyme (leaves from one sprig)
  • 1 tsp. Dried orange peel

Julie’s comment:

All I can say is that I have made it three times since then and it has become another staple on our table!

Diana’s Grove Garlic-Bleu Cheese Dressing

This is a fave from a retreat site I’ve visited in the past.

  • 1 c. mayo
  • 1/2 c. sour cream
  • 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 squeezed lemon
  • 1/4 to 1/2 c. bleu cheese crumbles
  • handful of chopped parsley (dried)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • A whole lot of crushed garlic

Emulsifiers for salad dressings

We all know water and oil don’t mix – at least, not without the help of an emulsifier. We discussed using cream, yogurt,  mayonnaise, and even mustard as emulsifiers. Member Carol kept her eyes peeled, and when her issue of Cook’s Illustrated arrived, sent me this note:

Just got a newsletter from Cook’s Illustrated that had a video about vinaigrette emulsifiers.  They tested mustard, mayo and egg yolk.  Winner was egg yolk, which caused vinaigrette to stay together for 3 hours (as opposed to mustard – 30 minutes – and mayo – 1.5 hours).  They decided, however, that the egg yolk made the vinaigrette too eggy tasting, so they decided a mixture of mayo and mustard was the best solution.

Vegetarian pastyPreserving Traditions member Dennis Purcell led us in a great workshop on how to make pasties on April 4th.  Here’s the recipe, for anyone who missed it!

Pasty crust recipe

The dough is similar to pie crust dough, but is a little less flaky and a little more sturdy. You can omit the salt and/or sugar, if you like.

For 4 large pasties

  • 4 c. flour (all-purpose is best, but you can use whole wheat flour, too)
  • 3/4 c. solid shortening (Crisco, butter, lard, palm oil. etc.)
  • 1+ cup of water (start with one cup and add more as needed)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar

Pasty filling recipe

Dennis tells us pasties can be filled with almost anything. He likes this mix because it’s not greasy, and has a lot of vegetables to go with the meat. You can omit any item, but you want to end up with about 3/4-1 cup of filling per pasty. Dice all the vegetables to the same size – about 1/4″ – so they cook evenly.

For 4 large pasties:

  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 pound ground pork (or use a total of 1 pound of ground beef; meat may be omitted for vegetarian pasties)
  • 1 cup diced potato
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1/2 cup diced carrot
  • 1/2 cup diced rutabaga
  • 1/2 cup diced turnip
  • 1/2 cup diced parsnip
  • Minced fresh cilantro and parsley, to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix the filling in a large bowl with your hands so all ingredients are distributed evenly.

To assemble the pasties:

Roll out the dough in an oval, about the size of a pie crust. Add up to a cup of the filling on one half of the dough – be sure you don’t over-stuff your pasty, or you won’t be able to seal it shut. You may dot the filling with butter, especially if your meat is lean or if you are making a vegetarian pasty. Fold the dough over to make a half-circle shape; fold and crimp the edges to keep the filling sealed in. Slash a couple steam vents in the top and bake on a greased sheet at 375 for about 45 minutes.

A nice crowd (was that 10 people?) participated in Sunday’s workshop on ketchup, mustard, and salad dressing. Even though Kraft and Heinz would like you to think these things are something only they can make, about half our folks had made at least one of these items before at home. It made me thankful, yet again, that we still have some traditions to preserve, and we aren’t starting entirely from scratch!

Download the workshop’s condiment recipes here.

Ketchup basics: Ketchup is made from concentrated tomatoes (simmered-down puree or even tomato paste) and seasoned with vinegar, salt, sugar, and a somewhat surprising blend of spices: cinnamon, allspice, cloves, cayenne, and sometimes onion and garlic. Two recipes are included in the downloadable recipe packet.

Mustard basics: The type of mustard seed you use really matters! Don’t use all brown or black mustard seeds; use some yellow ones as well. The darker mustard seeds have a more bitter flavor and can be overwhelming if used alone. Dried mustard powder can be used alone or with whole mustard seeds, depending on the kind of mustard you want to make. If using whole seeds, soak them overnight in water and vinegar so they’ll crack open when you put them in the blender the next day.

Mustard changes flavor a lot over time. The first day you mix it up, it might be too strong (hot and/or musky) to eat right away. Let it mellow a week or more in the fridge, and it’ll probably taste much better. An exception to this is mustard made from mustard powder and water or vinegar. If you want nose-searingly hot mustard, make it just before serving and don’t bother saving the leftovers. Like wasabi, it’ll singe your nose hairs but lose potency over time.

Salad dressing basics: Salad dressing is usually a variation on oil + vinegar + spice. Since oil and water don’t mix, you either need to constantly re-mix it, or find some kind of emulsifier (a substance that binds the water and oil together). Xanthan gum is commonly used to emulsify commercial salad dressing; we also discussed whether prepared mustard can help salad dressing stay emulsified.

Homogenized dairy and mayonnaise are both emulsions, and they can help emulsify other ingredients. Ranch dressing, for example, gets its sourness from buttermilk and yogurt or sour cream and its fat from mayo. (You can also leave the mayo out for a thinner, lower-fat dressing.)

A standard vinaigrette traditionally has two parts oil to one part vinegar – but you’ll want to use a tasty oil (like a good olive oil) for this. Participants also have made good dressings with 3:1 or 1:1 oil and vinegar. It depends on what you like, and how good your oil tastes. Classic French dressing is just a vinaigrette with paprika. The simple Honey French dressing in the recipe packet has equal parts oil, vinegar, and honey with some paprika and salt. The honey thickens it enough to be distinct from a vinaigrette, but it’s not so “ketchup-y” tasting as other “French” dressing recipes.

Folks made their own salad dressing and mustard concoctions at the end of class. some of them needed extra ingredients, or time to let the flavors blend. Folks, report back here with your results! I’ll re-post the recipes when they come in.

photo by Dan Bruell

The on-again, off-again, on-again tamale workshop was a huge hit! About 20 people packed into the back of Pilar’s Cafe while owner Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers and her mom walked us through making tamales from scratch.

The biggest surprise to me was that it is the masa (corn flour dough) that is the real focus of a good tamale – not the filling. I knew Sylvia and her crew make over a dozen flavors of tamales – from chicken and pork to black bean and even “Greek” tamales with fresh local greens, feta cheese, and kalamata olives – but I didn’t know that they make a different masa to go with the different types of fillings. Chicken tamales have masa made with chicken stock, pork tamales get pork stock, etc. The black bean tamales are even made with black bean “stock” – the saucy broth left after cooking the black beans for the casamiento (beans and rice). All the stocks are homemade from real ingredients – no bouillon here!

Sylvia makes a very “loose” masa. It looks like cake batter when you first mix it up, and it has to stand for at least one night in the fridge before you can scoop it and roll it into tamales. If you’ve ever bitten into a tamale and found it to be too dry, it’s because the masa was not mixed with enough stock and is simply dry and stiff. After standing for several hours, the masa should take on the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes. Masa will keep a long time in the fridge – a couple weeks at home, though Sylvia uses hers in under a week at the store.

Photo by Dan Bruell

Assembling the tamales is a little messy, but not too hard. You need a 12×10″ square of aluminum foil and a 6×9″ sheet of parchment paper. You can also use a cleaned square of banana leaf on top of the foil, if you like, though washing the leaves takes several changes of water and is very labor-intensive. Sylvia has stopped using them in her tamales because she’s concerned about the pesticides sprayed on the leaves. Many of her ingredients are organic, or at least hormone- and antibiotic-free, so she doesn’t want to ruin the health benefits by wrapping them in chemical-soaked leaves.

Don’t overfill the tamales; an egg-sized ball of masa, spread out with a dimple in the middle, is about right. Add some salsa and whatever fillings you like, then roll it up. This video shows the tamale-rolling process far better than I could explain.

After we made our tamales, we sampled some that had been cooked already, along with cortido (pickled cabbage salad) and horchata (an amazing sweet beverage with cinnamon and morro spices, reminiscent of chai but totally dairy-free). Snack time also gave us time to talk – we learned how horchata is made (and wow, is it totally worth $4/cup!) and about Sylvia’s plans to add an espresso bar to the cafe, with horchata lattes and spicy mochas. Yum! Sign me up.

Sylvia will probably be teaching more classes in the near future. She’ll announce them in her newsletter (sign up by calling the store at 734-929-4161) and when I learn of them, I’ll alert you to them here, too.

cabbageLast Sunday, we learned how easy it is to make homemade sauerkraut. I forgot my camera (again…) but the inimitable Ilex over at Homesteading in a Condo recently posted a photo essay of how she makes kraut. I refer you to her excellent guide to making sauerkraut, and make a few notes here about how we varied the process slightly.

Holly has beautiful, vintage sauerkraut crocks, and she makes several gallons at a time. If you are not blessed with such crocks, or want to make smaller batches, all is not lost! Canning jars make excellent small-batch kraut containers – use either quarts or half-gallon wide-mouth jars.

You can either salt the shredded cabbage in a bowl, tossing thoroughly to mix, or layer cabbage and salt right in your crock or jar. In either case, every few inches you need to stomp the cabbage and thoroughly bruise it. This gets it to release its juice, which will combine with the salt to make the salt brine that preserves the cabbage. Shred, salt, stomp. Shred, salt, stomp. That’s about all there is to it.

When you get to the top of your container or run out of cabbage, you want to make sure the kraut is submerged under brine. In a canning jar, I get great results by tucking a whole cabbage leaf into the jar, tucking it down around the shredded cabbage, to make a “stopper.” Then I put a quart-sized freezer bag into the neck of the jar and fill the bag with brine (2T salt to 1 quart water). Make sure the bag fills every crevice and holds the cabbage under the brine, and top with a loosely-sealed plastic lid.

Some other thoughts:

  • A 3-4 pound cabbage makes about a quart of kraut.
  • Use a total of 1.5 to 2 tablespoons of salt per quart of kraut. Measure it out beforehand and sprinkle it in evenly as you go.
  • More salt preserves better; less salt tastes better. As long as you keep the cabbage submerged and the top on (but not tight), you can usually keep the kraut from getting moldy.
  • Mold or “scum” (usually kahm yeast) is not dangerous, but it doesn’t taste good. You can safely scrape it off (taking a layer of kraut with it, if the gunk isn’t free-floating) and the rest of the kraut is OK to eat.
  • You can season kraut. Try:
    • 1-2 Tbl Caraway seeds
    • 1-2 Tbl mustard seeds plus 1-2Tbl prepared horseradish, dispersed evenly throughout the kraut
    • Add red pepper flakes, shredded carrots, shredded daikon, scallions, and ginger for a kimchee-like salad (this works great with nappa cabbage, and may need some additional brine)

Also, you don’t just have to eat your kraut straight. Try these:

  • Crumble and brown sausage with a diced onion. Add shredded cabbage and kale, a diced tart apple, and cooked diced potatoes (boil them with a lot of salt!). At the last minute, stir in about a cup of kraut and just heat it through. Top with cheddar, if you’re feeling decadent.
  • Add well-drained kraut to potato pancakes.
  • Mix 1/4 c. kraut or pickle juice, 1/4 c. vinegar, 1/4 c. salad oil, and 1 Tbl prepared mustard. Mix together and use as salad or slaw dressing.

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