Sunday, January 18, 2009

Homemade Yogurt: Plain and Simple

I have a thing for yogurt. I love it. I eat it for breakfast almost every day. My yogurt of choice is plain and nonfat with fruit. (Sure, of course, the full-fat version is utterly delicious, but I don't count yogurt among my list of indulgence foods.) I love thawing a handful of frozen raspberries with some dark cherries in the microwave and spooning my yogurt over these, with or without a drizzle of honey. (Frozen fruit, thawed, releases more juice than fresh fruit does.) If we have strawberries from the backyard bed in season, I'll eat those with my yogurt, and maybe a sliced banana. Or stone fruits, or even some canned crushed pineapple packed in juice.

Yogurt, though getting a popularity boost from the 1970s health food initiative and continuing from there on a head of steam generated largely by novelty flavors and convenience packaging, was actually around for a long time before that. Thought to have originated in the Middle East sometime around 2000 B.C., it was most likely a serendipitous accident of environment plus foodstuff plus friendly bacteria. Folklore paints a picture of a Turkish desert nomad traveling with a skin bag containing milk strapped to his ride. The desert heat combined with the gentle churning motion of the animal's gait and the bacteria present in the skin bag caused the natural souring ~ but not spoiling ~ of the milk. Voila, yogurt!.

Yogurt, especially the plain, nonfat variety, is loaded with good stuff like calcium, protein, and probiotics. It's traditionally thought to treat a host of ailments from intestinal maladies to insomnia. I can't speak to its medical claims, but I do know that I love a good bowl for breakfast, and making your own is simple, economical, and a good way to keep the fridge stocked with yogurt.

Homemade Yogurt

  • 4 cups milk (I use skim)

  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk

  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt with active cultures (this will act as your starter)

  1. Pour 4 cups of milk into a clean saucepan and add the dry milk. Stir to dissolve. Heat milk on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until just below scalding. Milk should reach a temperature of about 185 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer.

  2. Remove pan from heat, set a cover over pot at angle to let steam escape, and allow to cool to between 100 and 110 degrees F. This temperature range is critical ~ cooler than 100 degrees F and the yogurt cultures won't be warm enough to multiply prolifically. Too much warmer than 110 degrees F will cause the cultures to die off. If you want to hasten the cooling stage, set pan of milk into an ice-water bath and stir every few minutes, taking the temperature of the milk periodically with an instant-read thermometer.

  3. When milk is between 100 and 110 degrees F, take 1/2 cup of plain yogurt (your starter) and place it in a clean 1-cup glass measuring cup. Ladle 1/2 cup of the warm milk into the yogurt and stir to integrate. Gently pour this mixture into the pot of milk and stir gently to combine.

  4. Pour milk-and-starter mixture into yogurt maker and process according to manufacturer's instructions. {Note: If you do not have a yogurt machine, you can still make your own yogurt. My grandfather used to make his own yogurt by setting out milk and starter cultures in mason jars on a sunny kitchen windowsill. Check out this article for tips on how to make your own yogurt without a yogurt maker.}

  5. Yogurt will get firmer ~ and more tart ~ the longer it is processed. It will also firm up more in the refrigerator, after the processing time is complete.

Makes 1 quart.

Recipe Notes:

  1. Regarding milkfat, you can go according to your preference. I use skim milk, but whole, 1%, or 2% all work well.

  2. You can use any live-culture-containing plain yogurt to act as your starter. My favorites are Brown Cow and Stonyfield Farm, which both contain several beneficial probiotic cultures. Once you've made a batch of your own yogurt, you can set some of that aside to use as a starter for your next batch.

  3. If you want to add honey, fruit, maple syrup, jam, or other sweeteners to your yogurt, wait until after it's finished. My yogurt maker produces one full quart at a time, and I leave it plain and flavor it per serving. If you have a yogurt maker that produces small individual portions, don't add flavorings until after the yogurt-making process is complete, unless the manufacturer's instructions indicate otherwise.

  4. Homemade yogurt should smell and taste just like the store-bought stuff. Which is to say, if it has an "off" odor or tastes bad, discard it and start over. Yogurt should taste like yogurt, not like spoiled milk!

  5. Don't jostle your yogurt while it is setting ~ even a little bit of movement can cause the whole batch to remain loose.

  6. Once you've made a quart of yogurt, what do you do with it, if you can't consume that much yogurt in a timely fashion? No problem. Use it as you would buttermilk or sour milk in recipes. Make dip. Try your hand at making yogurt cheese. I could give you a nice long list of possibilities, but really, I think you'll have the opposite problem ~ your supply won't be able to keep up with your demand.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Eggnog Pancakes

Christmas has passed and we are dipping our toes into the new year. Gradually, we're clearing out the party snacks ~ the leftover dips and crackers, the chips, the cheeses, the frou-frou cookies. So what's left? A few withered ham roll-ups and a quart of eggnog.

Well, the ham roll-ups were delicious in their prime (Thank you, Ande), but alas, it's time for them to shuffle off this mortal coil. (Yes, yes, okay! Forgive me ~ I just can't resist a Hamlet pun.) The eggnog, on the other hand, is perfectly fine. There it is, on the top shelf of my fridge, an unopened quart carton, sitting conspicuously beside the skim milk and nonfat plain yogurt and other healthy-eating provisions waiting for Monday. (In our household, we get back to healthy eating when the school schedule resumes. Till then, it's staycation food for us.

So, let's see. What to do with a lonely leftover quart of eggnog? May I suggest extending the holiday cheer a bit with a nice stack of Eggnog Pancakes?

Eggnog Pancakes

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • Pinch nutmeg

  • 1 1/2 cups eggnog (can use light)

  • 2 tablespoons oil

  • 1 large egg, beaten

  1. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Whisk to blend ingredients.

  2. Preheat griddle to medium-high (I set my electric skillet to 300 degrees F).

  3. In a separate bowl, stir together eggnog, oil, and egg. Pour into dry ingredients and whisk just until dry ingredients are moistened. Batter will be fairly thick.

  4. Drop batter by quarter-cupfuls onto oiled skillet. Cook pancakes until bottoms are golden brown and bubbles appear on the surface. (Because the batter is so thick, check the bottoms before bubbles break at the surface so they don't burn.) Turn and cook other side. Keep warm in oven until all the batter is cooked.

  5. Serve pancakes warm with butter and syrup or honey. Enjoy!

Serves 4 to 6.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Curried Lentil Stew

Lentils, long popular in India, the Middle East, and Europe, have been gaining an enthusiastic following in the United States over the past few decades. This small, relatively quick-cooking pulse (defined by Webster's as "the edible seeds of various crops . . . of the legume family) is loaded with protein and fiber and extremely low in fat. Lentils provide folate, vitamins A and B, potassium, phosphorus, and iron ~ all without cholesterol. (Make any healthy-eating New Year's resolutions this year? You may want to cozy up to the lentil.)

There are several varieties of lentils. French green lentils cook a bit more slowly than other varieties but hold their shape well and are considered the gold standard for cold salads. Also known as lentilles de Puy, these lentils were originally grown exclusively in the volcanic earth of Puy, France. Red lentils, such as the Egyptian lentil, cook quickly but tend to lose their shape. Use these for soups, stews, and purees. Their pinkish red hue turns golden upon cooking. Brown lentils are the grocery-store standard. They are mildly flavored and cook in a jiffy. Don't overcook these or they'll turn to mush. Petite Beluga black lentils take on a glossy, caviar-like sheen when cooked.

Unlike beans, lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking.

Curried Lentil Stew

  • Olive oil

  • 4 carrots, peeled and finely chopped

  • 3 ribs celery, finely chopped

  • 1 medium onion, finely diced

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 tablespoons curry powder

  • 7 cups water

  • 1 pound dried lentils, rinsed and picked over

  • 3 teaspoons beef or vegetable bouillon

  • 1 cup tomato puree or 1 (14.5-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

  • 8 ounces frozen cut-leaf spinach (no need to thaw)

  • Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste

  1. 1. Drizzle a few tablespoons of olive oil into a dutch oven or stockpot and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add chopped carrots, celery, and onion to make a mirepoix*. Saute until the vegetables are just beginning to get tender. Add garlic and sprinkle the curry powder over the vegetables. Continue to saute, stirring, for another 2 to 3 minutes.

  2. Add one cup of water to the pot to deglaze, scraping up the browned bits at the bottom. Then stir in the remaining water, the lentils, and the bouillon. Place a cover on the pot at an angle so that steam can escape, and bring to a boil. Once the stew comes to a boil, stir, reduce heat, and simmer for about thirty minutes, stirring occasionally.

  3. Check the lentils for tenderness at about 30 minutes. When they are fairly tender, stir in the tomato puree and the spinach. Let simmer until the desired texture and consistency are reached. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

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Recipe Notes

  • A mirepoix [pronounced Meer-PWAH] is a combination of diced carrots, celery, and onion sauteed ~ most typically in butter, but sometimes in olive oil or bacon drippings ~ and used to flavor soups, stocks, or sauces. A blanc version of the mirepoix replaces the carrots with parsnips or mushrooms.

  • This stew freezes nicely. Thaw overnight in the fridge and reheat the next day. If it thickens too much, just thin it with a bit of stock.

  • For an interesting flavor twist, stir in a splash of red wine vinegar or lemon juice. To make a delicious, more indulgent variation, stir in a cup of light cream or half and half right before serving.

  • I paired this with garlic-herb fried bread, a variation on naan, for a very satisfying lunch. If you want to make a heartier meal of it, add some sliced sausage, kielbasa, or cubed ham.



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