Saturday, January 22, 2011

Oh KitchenAid, Cuore Mio!

For Christmas I received (from my fabulous MIL and FIL further known as Mom P. and Dad P.)

...deep breath...

a KitchenAid Grain Mill attachment to my Professional 600 stand mixer. YAY!

I absolutely adore my KA. It's color is "Licorice" which suits me just right (I love black licorice). I have baked countless of bread loaves, cakes, muffins, pies, and everything under the sun with this lovely machine.

It is my muse.

I used to have a smaller tilt-head model which turned out to be a lemon when its motor burnt out within a month or so after I got it (no fault of mine). KitchenAid's customer service was amazing. Within the week UPS showed up at my front door with a new mixer and whisked the old one away free of charge. Not only that, but KA allowed me to upgrade to the larger bowl-lift model for a few bucks extra. I was in heaven.

Last week Cowboy and I purchased our first bags of whole grain hard red and hard white wheat. We decided to bake three loaves of bread using our new grain mill: one full red, one full white, and one mix 50/50 red and white.

After reading the manual we attached the mill to the KA and put in 1 cup of grain. The aroma that drifted up from that fresh milled wheat was down right amazing.

We ran the flour through one more time to get a good fine flour and then let the KA rest while we mixed up one loaf of bread. Repeat x3 and three loaves of delicious and golden loaves of bread were produced.
Let me tell you the taste was something I cannot even begin to describe without feeling I was doing an injustice. This bread was so good it didn't need a single thing on it. NOT EVEN BUTTER! If I had the time, this house would never contain a loaf of store-bought bread again.

The following day we made a toasty grilled cheese sandwich. The bread had a little crunch to it from the whole grain which made our eyes roll back into our heads for a few moments with delight.

A few days after that we made homemade corn bread. WOW.

Now I had meant to take photos of these beautiful loaves and cornbread however, they were devoured before I had a chance so this weekend was going to be bread making day with a promise from Cowboy that he wouldn't touch them until I snapped some pictures.

Which brings us to the now pain in my heart...

The other day, I placed some grain into the mill and turned the KA on. Out came this atrocious noise: a whir then an awful grinding noise. I had noticed several months back that the KA had sounded a little "off" but I just couldn't identify it and it was ever so slight that I thought maybe I was imagining it.

Note: I am always very protective and gentle with my kitchen machines. Whenever I make bread or big batches of things I always allow the mixer to cool and don't stress it too much. I keep a cover on it when not in use and take very good care of it and pet it on occasion.

Well today that noise turned into a wail, emitted by my KA, and like the frantic mother of a screaming child I was all over that machine. I quickly shut it off, disengaged the mill, and inspected the mill inside and out. I thought, perhaps, it was the mill that had broken. Cowboy inspected with me, cleaned it out well, and reattached. Turned the KA back on and out came the screaming crunching grind of something gone terribly wrong. It sounded, to us, like something slipping out of gear- like when you strip a screw head with a power drill.

We immediately turned it off and disconnected the mill, not quite sure what to do. After an extensive search online I found this.

Ugh. This sounded EXACTLY like my problem.

So with great hesitancy I opened the KA and took off it's top. I didn't want to mess with it and cause any extra damage but I had to see if this "plastic housing" was the issue. With my heart in my stomach, this is what I found:

 plastic housing cracked....(my thumb smudge on the grease leak)

 cracked housing on other side also- near the screw off to the left

 leaked grease down into the body of the KA

F minus KitchenAid, F minus...

So what am I to do?? My warranty is expired being over a year old (I purchased it 02/14/07) so I know that won't be my angle. However, I will give KA customer service a call tomorrow to express my utter disappointment in their claim to "all metal" construction. All metal my can't expect a workhorse like this to play nice with plastic parts. I purchased the biggest, baddest, and best of the line for the simple fact that I knew I was going to be making a lot of yummy goodness with it and wanted it to stand up to it's claim of being The Boss of the mixer crowd.

I can only hope that KA's customer service is still as excellent as it was years ago. I will keep you in the loop as to how this all turns out...fingers are crossed in that KA has collected enough customer complaints and changed their crappy plastic housing to all metal.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Breeding Good Bacteria: Making Homemade Yogurt

Yet another use for your dehydrator: Homemade Yogurt.

When I was a child my mother used to teach us how to make yogurt. My siblings were never much into the cool creamy tang of yogurt but my father and I ate it up like nobody's business. We would twist open a jar of freezer jam that my mother kept constantly in stock, usually strawberry or peach, and dollop its sweet goo on top. Sometimes, if we had the patience, granola or a banana would adorn our bowl of yogurt. Occasionally we would swirl in sticky sweet honey to make a fabulous dessert. Either way yogurt, for me, was an any-time meal.

My mother, at the time, had a small disc shaped appliance that fit about 6-8 (6oz) glass jars with plastic lids.  You warmed up some milk, added a heaping tablespoon of store-bought plain yogurt for your culture and spooned it into these jars. Placed the jars into the plugged in "incubator" and let set for several hours. I recall thinking with annoyance how tiny these little jars were and how I needed at least two of them to make a substantial yogurt snack. Yogurt making was a constant activity in our household.

Now, many years later I have discarded the old yogurt maker with flimsy split lids and learned how to make yogurt with wide mouthed canning jars, heavy duty plastic screw on lids, and my Excalibur food dehydrator. Still using the basic fundamentals of yogurt making, however now I can make mass quantities and never have to deal with infant portioned jars again.

How does one make yogurt you may ask?

Well, I'm about to show you...follow me:

First determine how much yogurt you consume. One gallon of milk will produce approximately four quarts of delicious yogurt. During the winter I make one gallon batches, however once summer hits along with glorious protein smoothies and hot temperatures I move on to two gallon batches to supply my addiction.

Next, grab yourself an appropriately sized stock pot for the quantity of milk you will be using. I find an 8qt pot works well for one gallon.

Homemade Yogurt
1 Gallon of milk (I prefer skim or 1% but you can make whatever you'd like!)
1/2 - 2c. powdered nonfat milk (*optional*)
1/4 tsp culture (or several heaping Tbs. store bought plain yogurt- make sure it has live cultures in it)

*Optional powdered milk: I tend to add this to increase the creaminess of my yogurt. You don't have to and might find that it is perfect to your taste without it; experiment with and without it to see.

*Cultures: I purchase my cultures from Dairy Connection Inc. They offer two different types, both are delicious. You can also follow their great recipe link here to get a more thorough description of yogurt making. The site also instructs you on heating the milk using a microwave but I don't use this method so won't go into detail here. 

Pour milk into stock pot and whisk in powdered milk if desired. Attach a cooking thermometer to the side of the pot making sure the tip of the thermometer does not touch the sides or the bottom of the pot. It should be "floating"about half-way down the milk to get the most accurate reading.

Heat milk on medium while stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. I usually allow it to start warming up a little before I begin stirring. You want to make sure the milk does not scald on the bottom of the pot. Grab a stool- you will be here awhile and need to keep a close eye on the milk while stirring constantly.

Your goal temperature is approximately 175-180 degrees Fahrenheit. You want to pull the milk off the heat right before it comes to a boil. It will get creamy and frothy looking. 

When you reach temperature, turn off heat and remove from the burner. Allow milk to cool to 110 degrees. During this time you should turn on your dehydrator to 110-115 degrees to preheat. 

Once the milk has reached 110, remove the skin that has developed on the milk's surface and prepare to add your cultures.

Spoon your culture into one of the clean mason jars and ladle in a little milk. Place the lid on your jar and shake well to distribute the culture into the milk. Add in a little more milk to near full and shake again. Pour the cultured milk back into the pot and stir well, then ladle back into four quart jars and screw on lids. 

If you are left with a little extra milk in the pot you can either grab a jelly jar for incubation OR (my favorite) pour it in a mug and drink it straight or with a tiny scoop of hot chocolate mix. The "yogurt milk" is deliciously sweet and creamy. Try it!

Place jars into your dehydrator, close the lid, and allow to incubate 4-6 hrs. You may need to go as high as 8hrs but know that the longer it is in the dehydrator the greater "tang" you will get but it won't necessarily make it any creamier. Best advice is to set timer to 4 hours and check the jars at that time. Very gently pick one up and tilt slightly. If it is still runny, set back down and recheck in an hour. As soon as the yogurt is firm and set, immediately place in the refrigerator.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sun-Dried Dehydrated Tomatoes

Admittedly, this was my second batch of the week. The first batch didn't make it but a mere four hours in the dehydrator. Every time Cowboy or I passed by the Excalibur handfuls of these tidbits would get popped into our mouths until we were left with just a few teaspoonfuls of salty tomato, garlic, and basil bits at the end of the drying period. A baggie of these will definitely be in my pack on the next long mountain trail hike. They are like chips but better and so much healthier! My promise to you: One bite out of these tasty morsels and you will never touch a jar of store bought again.

Sun-Dried Tomatoes

6 cups tomatoes (recommended grape, cherry, or Campari), halved or quartered depending on their size
1/2 c. fresh basil, stems removed and leaves sliced thin
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp kosher salt

Toss all ingredients together

and spread onto dehydrator sheets

You can chose to strain the tomatoes some, but if you want to pack them in olive oil when they are done I would suggest keeping the juices on the trays. That way your olive oil will be very flavorful!

Set dehydrator at 125-135 degrees and let dry. This should take about 6-10 hrs depending on the thickness of the tomatoes. They should be pliable but not have moisture in them. If you over dry them, that is fine- they will be more "chip-like" and can be crumbled onto salads (with feta!) and such. *** if you are going to pack them in oil, you must pull them off the trays when they are still slightly moist***

Turn off dehydrator and allow them to cool on the sheets. When cool, put them in a sealed container or in a lidded jar. If you wish, pour good quality olive oil just to cover and store in fridge.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Homemade Laundry Soap: Powdered or Liquid

A few years ago I started making my own laundry soap. I had no idea how easy and cheap it was to make your own laundry soap.

Not only is it financially brilliant, but both recipes are septic friendly (no phosphates). You can customize the scent to your liking depending on what soap or essential oils you prefer. If you are allergic to scents or dyes, no problem- just use mild soap such as Dr. Bronner's mild baby bar soap.

Did I mention how incredibly inexpensive it is?
1 batch of Liquid Soap makes 4 1/2- 5 gallons. Each batch costs approximately $3 to make it. You use 1/4-1/2 c. of soap per laundry load.
1 batch of Powdered Soap makes about 4 cups. You use 1-2 Tbs. per laundry load. That's about $0.01 per load.

Allow me to let that sink in for a second.

What's the cons you might ask? Well besides a little elbow grease I can't think of a single thing. And if you view it as a free upper body work-out via grating a bar of soap then I guess it's a win-win, right?

Ok, now get to work! All you need as far as utensils is a measuring cup, a metal spoon (or designated wooden spoon as you don't want to end up with soapy food by cooking with it), a medium to large saucepan, and a metal cheese grater. I prefer to keep my cooking utensils separate from my craft utensils- go to your local Thrift store to find these three things. You should walk out of there just a few dollars short. I also grate my soap on a craft cutting board so I don't gunk up my countertops with soapy chunks.

*both of these recipes do not suds up significantly. This is normal (making it perfect for front loaders) and does not affect their ability to cleanse*

Powdered Laundry Soap

1 cup 20 Mule Team Borax (interesting tidbit about 20 Mule Team Borax here- yeah I'm that nerdy)
1 cup Arm & Hammer Washing Soda
2.5 oz bar soap, grated finely- do not use beauty bars that contain moisturizers.
----Recommended bars to us: Dr. Bronners, Zote, Fels-Naptha, Ivory
optional: few drops essential oils

Combine all and store covered in a dry location. Use 1-2 Tbs per load of laundry.

Liquid Laundry Soap

2 cups 20 Mule Team Borax
2 cups Arm & Hammer Washing Soda
1 bar of soap, grated (see above)
4 cups warm water plus 4-5 gallons warm water
5 gallon bucket with lid (Home Depot's orange buckets are super cheap at about $3-4 for both bucket and lid, I personally prefer the gamma lids which are much easier to use on a daily basis)
optional 20-40 drops essential oils

Combine 4 c. warm water and grated bar of soap in a saucepan over med-low heat. Stir with metal spoon until soap dissolves.

Pour borax and washing soda into 5 gallon bucket. Slowly add 1 gallon of warm water and stir to dissolve.

Gradually add rest of the water to make 4 1/4-5 gallons total. Once soap is dissolved, add to bucket and stir well.

Let cool and add essential oils. Let sit, tightly covered overnight. Mix well (may have to stir before adding to each load). The soap should have a jelly-type of consistency and may be lumpy: this is normal. If it is too solid, just add a little more water and stir. Too runny? Add a little more borax, soda, or soap. Sometimes the hardness or softness of waters, or the brand of bar soap will affect it's consistency, you'll just need to experiment for yourself to see what works!

*Note- if your clothes end up with a little "residue" feeling then you might want to adjust your quantities. Try doing 1c. each of borax and washing soda instead of the full 2, or just reduce the borax only.

Finally, my last tip: instead of buying expensive fabric softener, use 1/2 c. of distilled white vinegar in your washing cycle. If your machine has a slot for softener you can add it there, otherwise just take a cheap downy ball, add the vinegar, seal and toss into the load!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why? Because Now I Can Can!

There is a lot of excitement buzzing at our household right now in great anticipation of the arrival of our new bundle of joy. No, sorry mom, it's not the little pudgy pink or blue-capped kind (yet), but the next best thing not a puppy either.

It's a brand new shiny All-American Pressure Canner! It took a lot of research and thought but we finally narrowed it down to three sizes: the most popular 21.5 Qt, the 30 Qt, or the "Big Bertha" 41.5 Qt.
Clockwise from bottom right: 10.5 QT, 15.5 QT, 21.5 QT, 25 QT, 30 Qt, and Big Berth 41.5 QT
My habits tend to gravitate me towards the biggest and best: I hate buying something, failing to assess my true needs, going cheap, outgrowing it in a year or two, and therefore ending up having to buy two of something instead. To me, that's a waste of time and more importantly a waste of money (something I don't have a lot "extra" of). I have no problem spending more for quality and doing it right the first time.

I was really really tempted to "go big" and pounce on the Big Bertha but the more I analyzed it I felt, for once, it might actually be a bit overkill. Gasp! Did I just say that?! At least for the time being:) Ok, that's more like it.

The reviewers on the 41.5 Qt commented that it took over an hour just to load and then several hours at pressure, and then about an hour to bring it down off pressure. That was a LOT of time and many of the reviewers tended to wait to use the cooker when they had assistance to load it. Not to mention, most likely I would have to be forced to use our Bayou outdoor burner instead of the stove top. I usually use the burner for my water bath canning but I would like to have the option of using the stove top and not rely on extra hands for loading.Plus, it was $100 dollars more...

The 21.5 Qt popularity peaked my interest as an all around multi-use pot. As Cowboy can confirm, I am all about having items in my house that are multi-use products. I hate hate hate having many individual items that clutter up space when I could have one or two products that do them all. Many reviewers not only canned in it, but also cooked in it. However, I was a little apprehensive about only being able to can 7 Qts at a time (with the added consideration of little mouths to feed in the future), and therefore looked on to the 30 Qt.

Product Features
  • 30-quart pressure cooker/canner holds 19 pint jars or 14 quart jars (only 5 qt jars less than the 41.5 Qt)
  • Made of durable, hand-cast aluminum with attractive satin finish
  • Exclusive "metal-to-metal" sealing system for a steam-tight seal; no gaskets
  • Geared steam gauge, automatic overpressure release; settings of 5 psi, 10 psi, and 15 psi
  • 19 inches high with 12-1/4-inch inside diameter; made in USA

Isn't she a beut!

I measured my stove top space to make sure that the 30 Qt would indeed fit. I deduced I would most likely need a step stool to load the beast, but that was not a big deal for me. Weighing in at 30lbs empty, I knew there would be no moving this heavy-weight once it was filled, but I really didn't see a reason to have to move it. Anyways, that's why I have a husband, right? flashing a grin to Cowboy. All bases covered, I compared prices and finally, with much satisfaction (and Cowboy's nod of approval), clicked to buy at The Canning Pantry.

Now I am sitting here, filled with anticipation and searching with great zest recipes to make and can! I already have potato soup (via Cowboy's insistence), BBQ beans from here, ground beef/chunked chicken, and a few others in the queue. I am a little sad that unless I get a heads up notice that the University's football team is coming over for dinner, I most likely will not be able to use this as a pressure cooker. Bulk batches of yummy broth, maybe...dinner, probably not. So we shall see how user friendly it is and maybe consider a smaller 15.5 Qt one in the future for dinners (ok twist my arm, maybe the 21.5 Qt in case we have company).

Soon to come: play by play posts of my pressure canning experience!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Backpacking Meals: the art of the dehydrator

Mountain House meals good, but homemade is better!

Some of the things I have been doing over the years as an avid hiker/camper is making my own dehydrated meals. Now I started out many years ago with a food "box". You know the kind. The huge bin filled with meals such as ramen noodles, mac & cheese, soup cans etc. All these heavy items mixed with pots, Coleman stove, utensils galore and totally unnecessary gear. It was my car camping food box and I thought that was what one does when they are packing food for a camping trip. Then I would stuff in my large cooler for things such as milk, eggs, yogurt, deli meats, pre-made foods in tupperware...and the list goes on. Finally in would go my super heavy weight synthetic sleeping bag mixed with my bed pillow, a battery pump air mattress, extra D batteries, a 5 gallon collapsable water bag, 6 person tent, six changes of clothes, a cotton towel (or two), lantern, my huge toiletry bag, and oh my goodness look at all this crap.

Seriously, it's kind of embarrassing to recall all the stuff I took camping with me that I was convinced I "needed" in order to camp comfortably. I started getting more serious about this whole "ultra-light" camping world and found myself joining a handful of friends who fit the bill. I allowed one of my friends to help me pack for a trip. It wasn't pretty and there were a lot of "are you sure? but I need those! what if..."

Fast forward a few years:
I did some heavy research and purchased myself an Excalibur Food Dehydrator. With the motto of "go big or go home" I selected the 9-Tray model #3900 shown here:

Love It.

Excalibur now offers a newer model that has a built in 26hr timer. At the time of purchase they didn't offer this, so I simply drove to my local Home Depot and purchased an individual timer for the dehydrator to plug into. Honestly I rarely use the timer, but it is nice to have.

As soon as the dehydrator arrived in the mail I did yet another online search for stuff to dehydrate and how. I worked furiously in the kitchen chopping bananas, carrots, tomatoes, and all kinds of fruits/veggies I could find. I loaded them up in the dehydrator, set the temp, and walked away. Pretty soon I had leathery bits of food that I packed into bags and set aside for camping.

A few weeks later, a hiking trip was planned. I packed my bags of food and headed out. Mid hike I fished out one of my little baggies of fruit and started chomping, quite proud of myself. The flavor was, well, bland and everything was so chewy that I felt like I needed to drink a gallon of water after. It wasn't bad, per se, but just average. I can do better, I thought.

Fast forward to 2011:

Note a slew of newly found products now in my repertoire such as Smartwool, IceBreaker, Under Armour, Gregory, Osprey, Camelbak, Western Mountaineering, Thermarest, Katadyn, etc.

I don't really consider myself an ultra-light camper quite yet but I am very close. I find that ultras tend to skimp in serious ways to the point of sawing off their toothbrush to save ounces. I don't think I will ever be there. I do, however, consider myself a very practical and light-weight camper. I pack for necessity and then a touch more. I do think of "what ifs" when it comes to food, medical, clothing, and on occasion water depending on the situation. 

In terms of dehydrated meals I can honestly say I have come a long way. Through my trials and errors I stumbled upon a book that changed my dehydrating life from there on out.  Folks, I present you:

In Yaffe's book, she gives you one main simple concept: Cook meals all together at home, eat half, dehydrate the rest. What an idea! All the other books I had read to that point had me chopping things in little bits individually and then dehydrating them. Once I was to get to camp, and starving after a long trek I might add, I was to pull out my individual packets of food and toss them all together in water to make a meal. The problem I found with that method is that everything tasted blah. Like a frozen meal nuked with too many carrots and red bell peppers. You know what I mean. Gross.

With the Backpack Gourmet you would make a meal in it's entirety: lets take chicken enchiladas, for example. You would make the meal right out of your everyday recipe book. Then sit down at a cozy home cooked meal at home. The leftovers would get spread right onto the dehydrator trays and put into the Excalibur. Once they were dry, the food pieces were broken up and stored in a bag. At camp I would pull out my lovely Jet-Boil, drop the dry food bits into it and barely cover it with some water. In a few minutes I would have hot steamy chicken enchiladas in my squishy bowl (I absolutely love these little bowls from Guyot along with my spork. When you are done you can flip them inside out and lick the bowl!) that tasted like I had just made them! Now granted, like pretty much every dehydrated meal out there, you aren't going to have the long cylinder shaped enchiladas to fork into, it will be more like a broken up pile of them, but they taste the same and will make your camping buddies or neighbors jealous. 

As a side note: I purchased a Vacuum Sealer from Costco which worked great to store the meals in. Occasionally I added in an oxygen absorber for those food pieces that were too sharp to vacuum seal. Using the vacuum sealer bags also proved to be great for a to-go meal. I would boil the water in the jet boil (no clean up because it is just water), then pour the hot water into the vacuum sealer bag and clip closed. If I was worried about spillage, I would first pour the dried bits into a Nalgene and then pour the boiling water into the bottle. During snowshoeing I could hold the bottle or stuff it in my clothes for a quick heat up! 

Pretty soon, I was the talk of the campsite with all my delicious foods. I began to dehydrate EVERYTHING. A few times I even dehydrated my left over take-out Lo Mein- holy cow this was amazing in camp!

With this I leave you with a great meal:

Cowboy's One Pot Meal

2 cans canned green beans, undrained
2 cans sliced new potatoes, undrained
1-2 packages sliced (or diced) smoked sausage

Put all in a stockpot. Bring to a boil then cover and let simmer about an hour (can let simmer uncovered a few more hours if you have the time). Eat some for dinner then chill the rest in the fridge. When cooled, spoon off the fat and discard. Then dice up the beans, meat, and potatoes. Spread onto Paraflexx drying sheets (they come with the Excalibur. If you don't have any then you can put plastic wrap down on top of the grid sheets). Drizzle a little of the broth over the food bits and place into dehydrator. Let dry overnight then store appropriately. 

This meal is so delicious and stupid simple. After it is dehydrated Cowboy and I were addicted to snacking on it dry as if it were a salty trail mix. I still use Yaffe's book for recipes and reference but I have since learned that all Yaffe was trying to get me to realize is that normal, every day recipes can be dehydrated and made into a backpacking meal. 


Feel free to pm me or ask me any questions.