Archive for April, 2011

Field trip: Kalustyan’s

   I have been planning to make kimchi for some time now, but my lack of gochugaru keeps thwarting my efforts.  What is gochugaru, you ask?  That was precisely my question. Gochu (chili pepper) garu (powder)  is traditionally created in Korea by drying red chilis in the sun and is the key ingredient in any decent kimchi, I’m told.  The difference between gochugaru and regular chili flakes is the level of capsaicin, the active component in chilis that make them spicy. The beauty of a traditionally dried Korean red chili is in the balance between flavor and heat, which is why it is worth the effort to seek it out. One source for all things Asian in New York is Hmart.  You can order online, but I was looking for a field trip.

So off to Kalustyan’s I went.  Founded in 1944, this specialty store in Murray Hill is a food landmark in NYC.  According to their own website, they carry over 30 varieties of chilis and I can vouch for the accuracy in their advertising.  They literally seem to have everything and Korean chili powder was no exception.  Wandering the aisles might be on my top 10 list of things I love doing.  But if you don’t live in the area, fear not – they sell it all online, too.

So now I have my gochugaru and no more excuses for not making up a batch of kimchi.  Stay tuned for the report!  Any advice on this matter is welcome.


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Remedy Quarterly

I just finished reading my last issue of the first volume of Remedy Quarterly, a lovely independent journal of food stories, recipes and home remedies for all manner of ailments, published by STACK magazines.  Each volume has a theme (Home, Cravings, Growing Up, & Celebrations) and comes in a different color.  With the world of books and journalism speeding headlong toward the digital, it is such a pleasure to receive this magazine in the mail.  The “object-ness” of it is so appealing – its 2-color off-set printing gives it an old-school feel –  and you can even (gasp) read it on the subway! One of the editors, Kelly Carambula, is the extremely talented graphic designer and author of one of my most favorite blogs, EatMakeRead. If you haven’t already visited, it is a visually stunning site that combines the author’s amazing design skills with her experiments in the kitchen.

The last issue, “Celebrations”, featured an interview with Kheedim Oh of Mama O’s Kimchi.  It inspired me to get cracking on my own kimchi-making experiment which started with a visit to Kalustyan’s spice shop, which I will write about tomorrow.  But first I am renewing my subscription to Remedy Quarterly and I urge you to check it out, too!


This week in Dairy: Chèvre

After yogurt and butter, Chèvre (fancy for goat cheese), is the obvious next step in the home creamery.  It’s simple and the results are impressive,  elegant and delicious.  All you need to start is a gallon (or less) of goat’s milk and an agent to transform it into cheese.  This can be done in various ways.  The most straightforward is to add lemon juice or vinegar to make it coagulate.  More complicated recipes require a culture, rennet and a mesophilic starter, for a delicious mold-ripened cheese we will explore one day soon. For this kitchen experiment,  I went middle of the road and used a culture I ordered from The New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.


Heat one gallon of goat milk to 86° F.  Sprinkle culture over the milk and let it hydrate for 1-3 minutes.  Stir.  Cover and let it sit for 6-12 hours (overnight is good).

The next morning, you will be excited to see that your goat milk has separated into curds and whey! Next, you will need to gently scoop out the curds using a slotted spoon:

And place them into a cheesecloth lined sieve:

Once you have transferred all of your curds, gather up the cheesecloth to make a little bag.

You can hang it over your sink or a soup pot, where it needs to sit for 6-12 hours depending on the consistency of cheese you are looking for.  You can also use this technique with your yogurt to thicken it into yogurt cheese. Yum.  Once your cheese reaches the desired consistency, you can either store it in a dish (if softer), shape it into balls,  or use wax paper to roll it into a log. At this point, you can get creative and add herbs and spices (crushed pepper, paprika, chives, etc.).  It will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.

It’s that easy!  If you want to try this, but don’t want to commit to buying little packets of starter, you can experiment with using cider vinegar or lemon juice as your coagulant.  Here is a recipe from, The Complete Guide to Making Cheese, Butter and Yogurt at Home, a book I highly recommend:


1 gallon whole goat milk

Up to 1/2 cup cider vinegar or lemon juice

Heat milk to 185°, stirring the milk frequently and hold at that temperature for 10 minutes.  Remove milk from heat and allow it to cool to 100° (you can speed up this process by placing the saucepan in a cool water bath in the sink).  Once the milk has cooled, slowly stir in 1/4 cup of the vinegar or lemon juice.  The milk should begin to coagulate with the curd appearing as little balls of cottage cheese as it separates from the whey.  If this doesn’t occur, add another 1/4 cup of the vinegar (or lemon juice).  Once you have curds and whey, ladle into the cheesecloth, let it hang, and call your friends to come for cocktails.

A note about thermometers:  One cannot easily make any cheese or yogurt without the use of an accurate thermometer.  I prefer this instant read digital thermometer –  it’s  inexpensive and gets the job done. 


It’s Earth Day. Time to get your compost on.

Do you like gardening?  Do you feel like you never get enough time to dig around in the dirt here in the city?  Does it bug you when you have to throw your produce scraps in the garbage?  And then does it bug you even more when your garbage starts to smell?  All of those problems can be solved by starting your own indoor worm bin.

Gross, you say?  I get that.  Sort of.  When I was a kid, every time it rained I would pick up earthworms off the sidewalk because I think they are kind of cool.  So earthworms don’t really freak me out.  If you told me I should set up a grub bin or a maggot bin, I would excuse myself from our conversation, never to return.   But worms?  I guarantee they are totally benign.  Plus, when you toss your food scraps into a worm bin, the worms start to break them down right away, skipping the unpleasant rotting food smell you sometimes get when you open up your garbage can. Yay worms!

The thing is, 26% of the trash that goes into landfills is made up of food scraps and yard trimmings.   That, to me, is more disturbing than setting up a box full of worms and dirt in your kitchen (actually, ours is in the dining “area”).  You can easily divert your share of that to the compost in a few different ways.  If you have your own back yard, there are a variety of different bins out there that are easy to order and set up (click here for some good reviews).  If you live in an apartment building, you can band together with your neighbor to start a building-wide compost program.  Last year, I attended a workshop given by the Lower East Side Ecology Center (an amazing organization, I might add) on how to convince your co-op or condo board to approve a building-wide system and how to go about setting it up.

However, if you don’t have much in the way of outdoor space, and your building is full of cranky people who are not down with the whole Earth Day thing, you can easily  strike out on your own in the comfort of your apartment.  The fanciest way to go about doing this would be to order the NatureMill Automatic Composter from Williams-Sonoma.  It looks like a little composting robot and appears to do everything for you.  It does recommend you keep it in a garage or sheltered outdoor space, so I don’t know what that means for apartment dwellers.  If it wasn’t $400, I would buy it and report back (if you have one, I would love to know about it).

Another option is to go the Bokashi route.  Bokashi composting uses a combination of anaerobic organisms (like yeast and lactic acid bacteria) to break down food waste.  Sounds like making yogurt.  I’ve been curious about this for awhile and am planning to buy one,  especially since it claims to break down meat and fish scraps (which are a huge no-no for most compost bins).

If either of those options don’t work for you, consider an indoor worm bin.  It doesn’t take up much space and is fairly easy to maintain (as in, you don’t need a compost-sitter when you go on vacation). We have had a bin on and off for more than a decade.  I first learned about vermiculture through a workshop at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1997 and started it as a domestic experiment; one that really did freak people out.   Flash forward to 2011 and you have worm composting featured in a Martha Stewart publication.

While worm composting is extremely easy, you do have to keep a few things in mind.  One bin can only handle about 3 lbs of scraps per week.  We monitor the amount by freezing out scraps in a container and adding them once a week.  You do have to peek in the bin on a regular basis to make sure it isn’t too wet or dry and to make sure you have a nice ecosystem going on in there.  That is my kid’s favorite part – they have names for them.  About 3 or 4 times a year, you have to harvest the compost.

In the coming weeks, I will document the harvesting of my current bin the and setting up a new one on this blog.  If you are itching to get started right away, check out the LESEC‘s instructions, or this step-by-step guide.  It will be fun and I guarantee you will not be sorry when you see the amazing soil you are adding to your plants (or to the trees on the street for that matter).

Happy Earth Day!

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Tired of the same old charoset? Go Sephardic!

After two seders, are you sick of filling your Hillel sandwich with the same old bricks and mortar?  I thought so.  About 15 years ago, I came across a recipe for a Sephardic Charoset that includes dates, figs and apricots, and I look forward to it every year.  The recipe makes plenty for two seders with enough left over to eat with cream cheese on matz0 for the next 8 days  – or for however long you feel like eating matzo. Happy Passover!


1 lb. dates, pitted and chopped

1/2 c. dried figs, chopped

1/2 c. apricots, chopped

4 Granny Smith apples, peeled and chopped

1 c. kosher red wine

1 t. cinnamon

1/2 t. nutmeg

1/2 t. ground cloves

1 c. pecans (chopped)

Put chopped dates, apricots, figs, apples, wine and spices into a saucepan.  Cook on medium, stirring often, for 20 -30 minutes until the apples cook down and the mixture becomes a paste.  Cool and add pecans.

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The Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen

Do you buy only organic produce?  We don’t.  I mean, I  go to the store and –  based on instinct or whatever article  I read recently –  I pick and choose.  Spinach? Organic.  Kale? Organic.  Apples? sometimes. Celery? rarely.   Frankly, it’s confusing even if you spend a lot of time thinking about food.  And what about local? Organic certification is a complicated process, often difficult for small producers to obtain.  Luckily, for 7 months of the year, we rely mostly on our CSA for produce.  I love it, because you know what you are spending up front, and you are guaranteed local produce that is grown without pesticides (even if it isn’t officially “certified organic”).  But for the other 5 months of the year, we’re trolling the produce aisles on our own.  So what to buy? Thankfully, there’s an app for that.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization dedicated to “the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.”  They publish useful resources for consumers while simultaneously working for policy change in Washington.  Among their informative guides is their continually updated “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” – otherwise known as the “Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen”.  This handy guide can be downloaded from their website as an iphone app, or printed wallet-sized to take to the store.  It lists the 12 foods highest in pesticides as well as the 15 “cleanest” foods that don’t necessarily need to be organic.  The worst offender? Celery.  The cleanest? Onions.

The EWG does more than just publish this guide.  They are a great source of information about food policy, environmental concerns, and consumer products.  It feels good to know there is a team of smart people out reading reports and analyzing policies in order to help us make sense of the overwhelming amount of data out there.  There website is well organized and a great place to go to  stay informed.

Happy shopping!



Adventures in soap!

Soap.  What the heck is it anyway? While today’s commercial soaps are not technically soaps at all, but detergents made from petroleum-based products, a true soap is derived from combining a fat with an alkaline substance to create “saponification”.  The question is, how in the world did our forebears think to go mixing their left-over animal fats with potash (which is what you get when you leave your ashes soaking in water)?  One of the earliest urban legends has it that the Romans discovered soap on “Mount Sapo” where  animal fat from burnt offerings dripped down onto the ashes and combined into a lathering substance that was found to be good for cleaning.  Um, gross.

While there are some historical references to home soap production in the early middle ages, it wasn’t until the 13th century that olive-oil soap factories were established in Marseilles.  However, the volatility of the saponification process made their products uneven and soap as a personal cleaning product was not widely used.  In 1775, French chemist, Nicolas Leblanc, discovered a way to manufacture soda from common salt, creating a more stable alkali (but with the drawback of a toxic byproduct).  In the 1860’s, the Belgian chemist, Ernest Solvay, improved upon Leblanc’s discovery and created Soda Solvay, thus paving the way for modern soap production.

Early American colonists made their own soap by combining animal fats rendered during cooking with lye that was created from mixing wood-stove ashes with water in an ash-hopper, a device used to render lye.

It was an imperfect science and difficult to tell the strength of the alkaline component that was being created.  One way to tell if your lye solution was strong enough to make a good soap was to float an egg in it – if you got a floater, with enough egg bobbing  above the surface, you were in luck.  Sinking objects required that the liquid be boiled down. This led to all sorts of interesting folk-wisdom regarding how to get a good batch of soap: Pay attention to the tides! Only use sassafras sticks to stir the Lye!
Perhaps we should have paid better attention to such folk wisdom when we attempted our own colonial soap making experiment with our friends upstate some time ago.  As was to be expected, our friend, Daniel, had been collecting ashes in a bucket all winter to render lye and had been saving his bacon fat, too!  We decided to make two types of soap: olive oil and bacon.  Using a colonial recipe, we were able to get the soap to “trace” – which is when the elements come together and start to turn into actual soap.  But after days, the stuff never hardened.  I wasn’t too disappointed because –  really –  was I going to use the bacon soap?

For the next several months, however,  I was vexed by my soap situation which led me to take a soap making workshop at one of  my favorite places ever: Make Workshop.  I bought all my supplies and showed up on a Friday evening in February, ready to lather up.  The workshop was given by Jeff Kurosaki & Tara Pelletier, the artists behind the groovy handmade soap company, Meow Meow Tweet, which they run out of their Brooklyn home.

They took us through the steps of cold-process soap making.  I don’t have any photos, because I was wearing gloves,  goggles and a mask.  Cold-process soap is made by mixing natural oils, lye and water.  We’ve come a long way from the folk wisdom of the  Colonial days.  Now,  to get the precise recipe you want, all you need to do is log into the Soap Calculator, a cool online device that gives you the exact measurements of the ingredients you will need for any type of soap you want to make.  For this workshop, we made two soaps: a shea butter soap and a cocoa butter soap.  The experience was like a cool chemistry class given in the art room.

The first step is to measure, combine and heat the oils, melting and mixing the solids and liquids to 110°.  You want your oils at about 100° when you add the lye, and the cooling time gives you time to mix your lye water.  Dissolving lye in water creates an exothermic reaction, and here is where things get serious. Lye is extremely caustic and one has to wear a mask and eye protection to avoid burns.  However, Jeff and Tara did their best to assure us that lye is a natural agent that, when handled correctly, is extremely useful.  Indeed, food-grade lye is used to cure a number of tasty foods (green olives and lutefisk, to name two).

Once you mix the oils with the lye water, the mixture turns cloudy and it is time to use the immersion blender.  This process is called bringing the soap to “trace”: which is when your fats and lye have successfully combined.  You can tell this is happening when it thickens and leaves little bubbles on the surface when you dribble it back into the pan.  Figuring this out is part of the art of handmade soap making.

Once your soap has successfully blended, you can start adding herbs and essential oils to give it some personality.  We used lavender in one batch and Calendula with lemon oil in the other.  Once they were mixed in, we poured the liquid into molds (paper cups, actually) and brought them home to continue the slow saponification process.  One week later, I took my new soap out of the cups, cut them into disks and washed my hands. Heaven!

Well, now I know what soap is and how to make it.  Mission accomplished.  If you’re in NYC, I highly recommend heading on down to Make Workshop to do it yourself.  However, my biggest takeaway was that until I start stocking up on lye, I’ll just buy my soap from Meow Meow Tweet!


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