Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Making Mozzarella : Deep in the Curds

Little Miss Muffet might have sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey, but I took a bowlful of curds and turned them into cheese. Somehow the thought of munching on mozzarella is far superior to the nursery rhyme treat.

I found myself in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to outstanding local organic food, in fact, some of the best in the nation.  Zingerman's Deli draws foodies from far and near and their entrepreneurial team gets credit for  pushing the locavare movement. Zingerman's became legendary for their high standards,expertise and business success, as should a place that sells about a ton of corned beef per week.  

Cheese selection available at Zingerman's Creamery in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Cheese Curds
The Zingerman group also runs a few subsidiary operations in a nearby industrial park: a bakery, specialty cake shop and a creamery. Each of these enterprises is known for their dedication to hand crafting from the best ingredients available. Therefore, I was thrilled with my chance to sink my hands deep into curds at a cheesemaking class at Zingerman's Creamery

I donned an apron and washed up before entering a warm and humid  industrial-sized workspace. Talk about spotlessly clean, why stainless steel gleamed everywhere: appliances, tables, sinks, racks and large cylinders. The concrete floor had just been hosed down and the air smelled spic and span.

My station included a white plastic bucket with curds, rubber spatula and a rectangular container filled with salty water.

Testing for Softness
We were instructed to pour a pitcher of very hot 170-180 degree water over the curds to soften them. After a few minutes we tested to see if they were pliable and a bit stretchy. We then poured off the water and repeated the process.

Next we picked up the curds and stretched them, just enough so they became smooth, shiny and supple.  Cheesemaker and instructor, Aubrey Thompson, cautioned not to over pull. Each student then formed three balls and placed them in the brine (the salt water container) for about ten minutes.  Wow- a mozzarella cheese ball. How simple and easy is that?

Next we made a braided or string cheese.The first few steps were identical to the above, except this time we stretched the softened curds into a snake-like roll. The roll was then folded over and put it back in the warm water for a few seconds. The snaking step was repeated and the product stretched until it had a rubbery consistency. Finally, we twisted the cheese into a braid and secured aromatic myrtle leaves around it with a string.  
Twisting into string cheese

This infused cheese is designed to be cooked because most of the fat has been stretched out. You simply place the wrapped mozzarella in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Unwrap and discard the leaves, drizzle on olive oil and sea salt. Scoop up with crusty bread. Yummy is an understatement.  

The last cheese we concocted was a burrata- a special gourmet cheese ball.

We started with a very small ball of mozzarella and pressed it out with the palm of our hand.  This thin layer was then fitted it into a small round cup with the edges flopping over. Next, we filled the center with unsoftened curds and carefully poured in heavy cream.  We tied the top with string and gingerly placed the delicate cheese ball in the brine for 5 minutes. 

A burrata can be eaten after resting a few hours. The consistency will be runny but delicious.  Otherwise, refrigerate for up to five days.  Each day the cheese will become slightly firmer as the cream blends in.  To serve, cut into pieces and douse with olive oil, cracked pepper and salt to taste. Then, let your cheese stand alone-- as the centerpiece of your appetizers.  Tasters will sing!

In my opinion, the burrata was the best, but I'd rather not think about the fat grams and calories. 

The Creamery sells cheesemaking kits which become great gifts. Kids would love the hands-on project. Consider buying one for yourself and preparing homemade cheese for others.  The process is easy and very gratifying.

Read this and other food blog articles posted on Wanderfood Wednesdays.

Cheesemaking Kits at Zingerman's Creamery

If you go:

 The Cheese Shop at Zingerman's Southside
3723 Plaza Drive
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48108
(734) 929-0500
Mon-Fri: 10am -7pm
Sat: 9am - 7pm
Sun: 10am - 6pm

Zingerman's Mail Order at:
Debi and the Myrtle Wrapped Cheese

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sara's Crepe Cafe in St. Augustine, Florida

Chocolate and Strawberry Crepe at Sara's Crepe Cafe
In case you're unsure: crepes are light, delicate pancakes made by pouring a thin liquid batter onto a hot flat circular plate, often with a trace of butter on the pan's surface. Originally from Brittany, a region in northwestern France, they are popular because of their versatility. 

And nowhere will you find more varieties than Sara's Crepe Cafe in Saint Augustine, Florida.  The newly opened restaurant is already attracting a faithful following along with happy tourists who just happen to drop in. 

And, no wonder. Margarita Abramov, Proprietor, has opened a cheerful, inviting shop and assembled an outstanding and dedicated staff.  Chef Matt Shapiro runs the kitchen with professional aplomb, as if he'd been perfecting the process for years. Assistant DJ is as enthusiastic as flaming cherries jubilee. These two are on the path to crepe celebrity stardom.

Owner Margarita should be as treasured in St. Augustine as the Fountain of Youth.  She has it all: charm, personality, warmth and spunk. Her energy flows not at a trickle, but at full gush. She will make this cafe a standout for locals and tourists alike.

Menu prices are reasonable enough to attract Flagler College coeds, yet the presentations please the business folk. Sara's offers a healthy fast food alternative, a to-go version of a crepe, held in paper similar to a wrap.  Another plus--all of the crepes can be prepared gluten-free.

Best of all, the establishment opens at 8:00 am for breakfast and stays in operation through the evening hours for dining, dessert and drinks.  Sara's serves beer and wine, too.

Owner Margarita Abramov and Derryck Lawrence
When I visited the other night, smooth Derryck Lawrence was on hand crooning strollers off the street and into the courtyard. With his welcoming grin, Mr. Personality added an upbeat tempo to the lively spot.

Margarita's new restaurant is already a hot spot (yes, it was sweltering outside) but I predict Sara's atmosphere and crepes will warm the heart and stomach even on a blustery day.  

If you go:
Sara's Crepe Cafe
100 St. George Street - corner of Hypolita and Spanish Street
St. Augustine, FL
904 810 5800

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Review and Recipe: Complete Idiot's Guide to Easy Freezer Meals

Book and Recipes by Cheri Sicard

Before you can say "summer vacation", my college student will be heading back to campus. This year she will live in her own apartment and that means cooking for herself.  I will be sending her off with The Complete Idiot's Guide to Easy Freezer Meals because the entire concept of cooking once and freezing portions makes such good sense.  And, duh-- the book explains it all --- in E-Z steps!

The first chapter, Freezing 101, is a must read. While I don't consider myself a bumbling idiot around the kitchen, I learned a lot of useful facts from the introduction. Did you know that unbaked fruit pies are best if you freeze the crust and filling separately, then thaw and bake?  That's to prevent the bottom crust from becoming soggy.  And, paper wrappers help absorb excess moisture, so when dealing with expensive food like fine cuts of meat, wrap in freezer paper and then in foil or plastic. 

To convince Laura that larger recipes are worth the extra effort, I chose to try one of her favorites: Macaroni and Cheese. Just so happened that I needed to take a dish for a group meal, so the timing was perfect.  I prepared the Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe and found the author's suggested prep time, initial cook time and reheat time to be accurate. The process was simple, except one step did require 15 minutes of simmering. The end result- scrumptious. This dish was truly a meal; very thick and heavy as opposed to boxed Mac and Cheese that's thin, watery and artificially orange. I especially loved the bread crumb topping, something I don't usually add but was definitely a plus when served at a buffet. 

The recipes in the book cover the gamut: from breakfast to dinner, soup to dessert. Ms. Sicard includes some traditional favorites as well as others with modern and diverse flavors. I plan to try the Tandoori-Style Chicken and Shepherd's Pie- which uses store bought Real Mashed Potatoes instead of the time intensive homemade.

The print size is large, so no strain on the eyes. Cool Tips and Cold Facts- little factoids in the text- are crammed with helpful hints. I also found the book stays open on the counter, no need to hold down the edges.

If I have any criticism, it is the absence of calorie and nutritional information.  Otherwise I feel Cheri Sicard, the author, did a fabulous job of convincing me that I need to use my freezer for more creative, money-saving meals rather than just storage of vegetables and meats.

Maybe I'll whip up a whole weeks worth of meals and then simply "thaw" out. Sounds ideal during this hot summer weather. 

Courtesy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Easy Freezer Meals

Yield: 9 cups

16 ounces uncooked elbow macaroni
6 TBSP. unsalted butter
4 TBSP flour
1 TBSP dry mustard powder
4 cups whole or reduced-fat milk
1 medium yellow onion, minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. paprika
4 ounces cream cheese
5 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Initial cook time:  20 minutes
Reheat time: 1 hour

1.  Add a bit of salt to a large pot of water and bring to boil over high heat.  Add macaroni, cook for about 4 minutes or until flexible but still very al dente.  Drain.

2.  In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons butter.  Whisk in the flour and mustard powder, and cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes.  Gradually whisk in the milk.

3.  Stir in onion, bay leaf, and paprika.  Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.  Remove from heat and remove bay leaf.

4.  Stir in cream cheese and half of the shredded cheddar cheese, and stir until melted.  Season with salt and pepper, then stir in cooked macaroni.

5.  Spray freezer-to-oven baking dishes that meet your portion needs with cooking spray.  Dividee half the macaroni mixture between the prepared baking dishes. Sprinkle with half of the remaining cheddar cheese.  Top with remaining pasta followed by a sprinkling of the remaining cheese.  Each dish should be about 3/4 full. 

6.  In a small skillet over medium heat, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add panko breadcrumbs and stir to coat. Sprinkle buttered breadcrumbs over tops of the baking dishes. Cool completely, cover tightly with foil, label and freeze.

To reheat from freezer:

Bake frozen dish in a 375 degree oven for about an hour or until filling is bubbly, top is lightly browned, and dish is heated through.  Smaller dishes will take less time.

Read this and other food blog articles posted on Wanderfood Wednesdays.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Driving Forces Behind Detroit Restaurants: A Round-Up of 5

This is the Motor City ... and this is what they also do.

Detroit does dining with a comeback kick. The city hip-hops to an upbeat tempo, driving with passion and commitment. The farm to table movement inspires and the chefs respond full throttle. Here are five restaurants worth the drive to the Motor City.

Pegasus Taverna 

858 Monroe
Greektown Detroit

Opa! Meals begin with flaming Greek Kasseri cheese which, when melted, releases a taste that's almost sinful. Platters of Moussaka, spinach cheese pie and stuffed grape leaves abound, followed by lamb chops, marinated chicken pieces and Pastitsio- macaroni mixed with ground meat. The waiters fete diners as if they were Greek Gods.
Experience Mediterranean flavors in a lively Greektown restaurant on the east side of downtown.

Pizzeria Biga
29110 Franklin Road
Southfield, MI 48034

Chef Luciano Del Signore uses a naturally fermented culture as a yeast-starter to create dough that results in classic Italian light crusted pies. They are baked for just 90 seconds at extreme temperatures in wood-fired oven. The menu touts the traditional pizzas of Naples and luscious small plates like risotto balls, meatballs, potato croquettes, Italian cheeses, gelato and canoli's made fresh daily. Fast food that's healthy.

The Henry
300 Town Center Dr
Dearborn, MI

TRIA's swanky decor flaunts within the new American Brasserie located at The Henry, a luxury hotel that was formerly The Ritz-Carlton, Dearborn. Chef James "Woody" Woodward has created a new dining concept with his Artisan Bench: nightly demonstrations and tastings to educate and entertain guests.  Exception food, beautifully prepared from local farms in a hip spot. 

Eagle Tavern  
Greenfield Village 
20900 Oakwood Boulevard
Dearborn, MI

The Eagle Tavern was originally built in Clinton, Michigan, as a stagecoach stop for travelers between Detroit and Chicago. The 1831 structure was moved to the grounds of Greenfield Village and visitors are still welcomed for an authentic tavern meal. Rustic wooden tables, period reproduction china and candlelight create a colonial yet charming mood. The bill of fare reflects simple entrees and seasonal farm fresh produce as it was 175 years ago. Costumed servers including Calvin Wood, the proprietor, present the experience as if on a living stage.

4222 2nd Avenue
Detroit, MI

Mario's: What's better than feasting on traditional, old-school Italian? Mario's is one of the few remaining supper clubs in business, in the same location since 1948.  The menu features the dishes you'd expect and crave: Marsala, piccante, scaloppini, cannelloni, lasagna, manicotti, ravioli and spaghetti. Mario's service extends by offering complimentary transportation to all Detroit venues.  Bon Appetito.

Read this and other food blog articles posted on Wanderfood Wednesdays.