Well Preserved

IMG_3090I guess making a winter food store is a bit redundant these days. But I love the idea of it, even though I’m lucky enough not to have to do it to get by. I adore opening a larder and being presented with rows of jars with their trapped summer contents. Better still, if the contents were grown by us too. It’s a habit I inherited from my father, a notoriously stingy & thrifty individual who liked nothing better than trapping rabbits and scouring hedgerows, leaving tunnels in 8 foot bramble bushes as evidence of his passing. As a child, obviously this was a massive embarrassment, seeing as it was pre-vintage fervour and repurposing wasn’t yet a byword. But in some ways he was way ahead of his time.

 All the same, the making of preserves is an annual autumn event in the house of Chopsticks; part ritual, part what-the-hell-do-I-do-with-another-hundredweight-of-tomatoes. You’ll have noticed the odd post on the subject in the past. In some ways it’s almost embarrassing, posting stuff about something that takes only a few minutes to achieve – it’s scarcely Masterchef.

But actually, that’s the point. It is easy. Everyone can do this – should be doing this – it’s fun and rewarding and simple and nourishing. And so, my evangelising continues, this time with Seriously the Easiest Pickle in the World.

IMG_3087Ingredients: cucumbers, enough vinegar to 2/3 fill your jar, sugar & peppercorns. And a jar.

Wash and dry the cucumbers. It is better if you use the tiny Lebanese snacking cucumbers for this – they’re about 10cm long.

  • Slice your cucumbers into discs about 3mm thick.
  • Take the vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but you could use whatever you have in your pantry), sugar (couple of tablespoons per jar, less if you don’t like sweetish pickles) & peppercorns (about a tablespoon per jar) place in a saucepan and bring to the boil.IMG_3088
  • Meanwhile clean your jar well with hot soapy water, rinse and put the wet jar in the microwave for a couple of minutes to sterilise (or the oven if you prefer).
  • Layer your slices of cucumber in the jar and pour over the hot vinegar mix.
  • Cover with sterilised lid (pour boiling water over the lid first to sterilise it).
  • Leave for as long as you can stand it – couple of days to weeks/months. They will improve with age!IMG_3091

 Variations include:

  • Add rings of thinly sliced red onion to the layers of cucumber
  • Try other spices such as coriander seeds, bay leaf, dried herbs, dried chillies, mustard seeds, cinnamon stick
  • Vary the levels of sugar to find your favourite
  • Try different types of vinegar
  • Keep the tiny cucumbers whole

IMG_3092

Milk + vinegar = cheese

Yup, I was surprised at the simplicity too.

I bought a cheese making kit last year and have spectacularly failed to use it so far. My bad. Kept telling myself it was hard to get fresh, straight-from-the-dairy milk. So when we saw Over The Moon selling their lovely milk (and cream, and ricotta and many good things) at The Entrance Market recently, there really was no excuse. We bought 2 litres of whole, unhomogenised milk.

cheese1

Back home, I got out the Home Cheese Making book, and started to read. I soon realised that I didn’t have the starter stuff they were talking about. In the dim distant bits of my brain that hold onto this sort of thing, I recalled the chaps at the Home Cheese Making Co telling me something about making a starter, with lots of talk of insulated tubs and keeping things at 72 degrees for 24 hours. Or some such. As my course with them isn’t until April, I couldn’t cross examine them for a few weeks so I plumped for the easiest recipe in the book instead – queso blanco.

This is a soft white cheese, often used for frying – like a haloumi I suppose. Ingredients:

  • whole milk
  • cider vinegar

cheese2 cheese3Sounded up my street. I took the milk, brought it to 185°F and added 2 tablespoons of vinegar.The recipe wasn’t clear on whether to take the milk off the heat so I left it on, seeing as it said “you can increase the temperature to 200°F in order to use less vinegar”. The milk started to split and curdle, and a few curds floated to the top. Not a huge amount really, so I let it go for 5 minutes or so, and then drained it through muslin folded 4 times.

strainedqueso

Something made me save the whey – I’d heard you can make ricotta from whey – so once I’d knotted the muslin & hung up the queso blanco to drip on my jelly bag stand,quesodraining I brought the whey up to 200°F again, and added another tablespoon of vinegar. This time, it instantly spilt into large lumps of curd and the whey changed colour to a faintly greenish thin liquid. Bingo!ricotta curdsthis time the curds split out of the whey instantly

wheycurds2more curds, slightly greenish thin whey

I drained the whey down the sink, and the resulting curd lump (aka ricotta) was actually bigger than the lump of queso blanco. Weird! Science in action! I feel like an alchemist.

ricottadrain

Ricotta curds

We let both bags of curd drain for about 5 or 6 hours, until they stopped dripping. The curds were slightly rubbery, and very bland, with the queso blanco being the firmer of the two.

bothcheesesdraining

both cheeses draining with the aid of a jelly strainer stand

Adding salt and a little cream to the ricotta untterly transformed it though – it became a delicious, if slightly rubberier than normal ricotta.

And as for the queso blanco….quesoafter6hrs

It was, as promised by the book, delicious fried with salt & pepper!

panfriedqueso

I can’t believe how simple it is! The ricotta was my favourite of the two, and was also delicious with a drizzle of honey.