Mozzarella is officially my favorite cheese. That’s because it’s what goes on top of my favorite food: Pizza.
Because I love pizza so much, I am very particular about the mozzarella I use. I prefer a very specific type of low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella that comes from a particular local supermarket because it has just the right hardness for grating, melts perfectly, pulls from the pie exactly the right way, and has the precise fresh taste that I enjoy most.
Over the years I’ve used all kinds of different types of mozzarella cheeses, both at home and in restaurants. For pizza, the best kind is low-moisture, part-skim that hasn’t been grated. It usually comes in a 16 oz. ball or log shape in a vacuum-sealed package.
The absolute worst kind you can use — and, ironically, the most common — is the pre-shredded mozzarella. This is the ubiquitous cheese you find hanging in plastic envelopes in any grocery store dairy case.
Unlike most other cheeses, mozzarella has a very high moisture content. So it doesn’t stay fresh for very long, especially after you grate it. Have you ever noticed that it will start to harden and curl up if you leave shredded mozzarella in the refrigerator overnight? Or that the cheese on frozen pizzas bears no resemblance to the freshly grated mozzarella used on a made-to-order pie?
Manufacturers of pre-shredded cheeses treat them with powders including corn starch, potato starch, and powdered cellulose, which is made from wood pulp that has been chemically treated to extract its fiber. These prevent the cheese from caking and also extend its shelf life. The result is a dull, dry, relatively tasteless cheese.
Believe it or not, many pizzerias, especially the big chains, use “bagged cheese” — the commercial equivalent of the grocery store variety — because of its convenience. But you can definitely taste the difference between a pizza made with freshly grated mozzarella and the-shredded kind.
Low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella is made from skim milk. If it hasn’t been grated will last at least a week in the refrigerator in its vacuum-sealed package. Once you open it, the cheese will lose its flavor quickly, so it’s a good idea to grate it and use it all right away.
I use a box grater and shred my mozzarella while the pizza dough is baking and the tomato sauce is simmering. This guarantees that all the fresh elements will be brought together at precisely the right moment for optimum flavor. (I’m a pizza freak, I know!)
Mozzarella that is made from the whole milk is softer and has a different flavor that low-moisture, part-skim variety. It’s the mozzarella you use for Insalata Caprese or to eat fresh, uncooked by itself. You can put it on pizza, but it has a wetter texture when it melts and lacks most of the appealing stringiness that makes pizza so delicious.
When you buy mozzarella made from whole milk, it usually comes in balls or ovals about the size of a tennis ball and soaking in brine. You also can get “ovallini”, which is the same cheese except formed into smaller balls about the size of large marbles.
In either case, ask that the deli attendant to add a little of the brine — after they weigh the cheese, of course — so that it will stay fresh longer in your refrigerator. Try to use it within a day or two for optimal flavor.
I’ve used buffalo mozzarella in high-end restaurant kitchens. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not made from the milk of the American buffalo — which has been pretty much killed off — but from milk taken from the domestic Italian buffalo, which is more like a water buffalo or ox. It’s flavor tends to be more defined and a little grassier, but it’s cost prohibitive for home use, at least for me.
Smoked mozzarella has a rich, smoky flavor. The smoking process evaporates more of the liquid so it has a harder texture, almost like a brie. It’s very nice as a spread or in a salad, but is not ideal for pizza.
Freshly grated mozzarella, either the low-moisture, part skim variety or the fresh kind — is ideal for topping pastas and is a key ingredient in any type of parmesan dish such as veal parmesan, chicken parmesan, eggplant parm, etc.
Really nice, durable high quality mozzarella can be found in most major supermarkets or grocery stores. Stay away from the pre-shredded variety and you should be in good shape.
Today’s high temperature is only 2 F and earlier this month we tied the all-time Chicago low record temperature of -16 F. That’s really cold for around here, although it sounds like it’s bad everywhere this winter (even Australia, where they are having a deadly heat wave!).
It hasn’t been so bad for me because I work (mostly) out of the house. So far, it’s only cost me one car battery.
But I really feel bad for our dogs, especially Max. Normally, Bud, Max and I walk at least a mile each day. We all look forward to it and It burns a surprising amount of energy in them.
When it gets colder than 20 F or so, it’s simply too cold for the dogs, especially for Max, who has a thinner coat and is shivering by the time we make it to the corner. And when they don’t get to walk and are stuck in the house all day, they get really charged up. Bud has been particularly naughty lately.
One benefit of this cold weather is that it makes hot soup such an appealing option for dinner. This winter, Sandi and I have been featuring soup/salad/homemade bread one night per week since before Thanksgiving.
I’ve really enjoyed making traditional favorites such as split pea and mushroom barley (we’ve been eating vegetarian since last April, so this is our replacement for the old standby beef barley), and experimenting with new soups, such as this wonderful Apple and Parsnip Soup that I found on the truly amazing VegHotPot blog.
What I love about this soup is it’s unusually complex flavor. It’s similar to a vichyssoise but with an apple and a couple of parsnips added. Yet because parsnips have such an interesting flavor — both sweet and slightly tangy, even smoky — that this soup really makes you sit up and take notice.
Parsnips are one of the most interesting — and often overlooked — of the winter root vegetables. They actually were used as a sweetener in Europe before sugar cane and sugar beets were introduced there. And they were the primary starchy vegetable in the US until they were overshadowed by potatoes after the Irish emigration in the 19th Century. Roasted parsnips continue to be a traditional holiday dish in many families.
This recipe is vegan, although I added a swirl of sour cream for the photo. Stay warm, everybody. Spring is coming, I promise!
Parsnip and Apple Soup
1 Large Onion
1 Large Leek
2 Garlic Cloves
1 tsp Ground Cumin
1 tsp Dried Thyme
Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
2 Parsnips, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice
1 Potato, peeled and cut into medium dice
1 Large Apple, any sweet kind, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice
4-1/2 cups Water
4 tsp Organic Vegetable Base
Olive Oil for sauteing
1. It’s important to prepare the all the fruit and vegetables before you start cooking because the high sugar content in the onion, parsnip, garlic and apple can cause them to cook quickly and the caramelization can cause the soup to darken.
2. Put a soup pot over a medium flame. When hot, add a drizzle of olive oil and let it heat up for minute then add the onion, leek, garlic, cumin and thyme. Saute for around 4 to 5 minutes on a low/medium heat until they soften then season with salt and pepper. Add the parsnip and potato and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring frequently so they don’t brown.
3. Add the apple, water and vegetable base, bring to a low boil then reduce to a simmer and cook over a low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Puree the soup using either an immersion blender or by blending batches in a blender until the soup is smooth.
Like most soups, this one will taste even better the second day, once the flavors have had a chance to get to spend some time together in the refrigerator.
You can garnish this soup with a crusty spicy crouton, a sprinkle of sliced chives or scallion, or a swirl of sour cream or creme fraiche from a squeeze bottle.
Lately, I’ve been getting into making homemade bagels. I remember vaguely making them in culinary school, and of course I love getting fresh bagels and cream cheese at Dunkin’ Donuts or Great American Bagel, but it was only recently that I rediscovered how easy and fun they are to make at home.
Basically, my bagel dough formula is exactly the same as my pizza dough formula. The only difference is that I substitute a little of the flour with corn meal. This changes the flavor slightly — it’s just a little bit sweeter — and also affects the texture, giving it a little more chewiness.
What makes bagels different than dinner rolls, burger buns or bread, for that matter, is that their outside skin has a little “bite” to it. This is accomplished by boiling the dough after it has been formed into the traditional bagel shape and allowed to rise overnight in the refrigerator.
Making bagels the right way is a two-step process. In fact, it’s a two-day process because you make the dough the night before and proof it in the ‘fridge. I suppose I could just let it rise on the counter the way I do with pizza dough, but putting it in the refrigerator overnight helps to develop the “snap” of the outer skin.
My wife, Sandi, always says this makes it a complicated process, but it’s not really. Each step only takes a couple of minutes and the payoff — fresh, homemade bagels in any flavor you want — makes it totally worthwhile.
My favorite part of making bagels is adding whatever toppings I want at the end. I bought a big container of poppy seeds at my excellent local produce market, but I also like to use toasted sesame seeds, dehydrated onion, and garlic powder.
I made cinnamon raisin bagels by simply adding a little sugar, cinnamon and raisins to the dough. If you try this, be warned: A lot of the raisins pop out when you knead the dough and you have to keep pushing them back in.
For my next batch, I bought some dehydrated blueberries for blueberry bagels. Using dried blueberries rather than fresh or frozen blueberries helps prevent the dough from turning purple. I’ll give you an update later as to how they turn out.
1 tsp Dry Yeast (or one envelope)
1-1/4 cup Warm Water
1 TBS Raw, Organic Sugar (or honey or agave nectar)
2 cups Unbleached Organic All-Purpose Flour
1 cup Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 cup Corn Meal (plus a little more for dusting the bottom of the baking pan)
1 TBS Sea Salt
1 Egg, whisked smooth (for egg wash)
Sesame Seeds, Poppy Seeds, or whatever topping you want
1. Whisk yeast and sugar into warm water in a mixing bowl (I use the bowl of my Kitchen Aid) and set aside for a minute or two to let the yeast activate (little bubbles indicate the yeast has awoken from its slumber!).
2. Meanwhile, combine the flours, corn meal and salt in another mixing bowl and stir together.
3. Using the bread hook attachment, turn the Kitchen Aid on low and slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet a little at a time and mix on medium-low until a dough is formed, about two or three minutes. (If you don’t have a Kitchen Aid, you can do this with a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon, the same way people have been doing it for hundreds of years!)
4. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and knead with your hands for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and springs back when you poke it. If it’s too wet (sticks to your hands while kneading it) simply add a little more A/P flour until it’s the proper consistency. Place the dough in a clean, greased mixing bowl, flip it over so ther is oil on all sides, cover with a clean dish towel and let it rest in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in size, about an hour or two.
5. Punch the dough down, let it rest for about five minutes, then cut it into eight even pieces (I cut the dough in half, then cut those peices in half, then cut them each in half again). Meanwhile, spray a sheet pay with pan spray and dust it lightly with cornmeal. Take each individual piece of dough and use your hands to roll it into a log, about eight inches long. Then twist the cylinder of dough around your hand — with the seam on the inside part of your hand — and squeeze to bind it together into a ring. You may need to pinch the seam a little so there is a smooth seal, otherwise it might open up during the proofing/boiling/baking stage. As you make each bagel, place it on the sheet pan with the best side facing up. When all the bagels are formed, cover the sheet pan lightly with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator overnight. Or you can make the bagels in the morning and let them proof all day, at least eight hours.
6. When you get up the next morning, the first thing to do is to put a large pot of water on to boil and preheat your oven to 450F. Remove the bagels from the refrigerator, carefully peel off the plastic wrap and let them warm up a little while you wait for the water to boil. Once it’s at a rolling boil, use a spatula to place the bagels into the water a couple at a time — thanks to the trapped air from the proofing, they will float. Boil one minute on one side then flip them over with the spatula and boil them another minute on the other side. Carefully use your spatula to remove each bagel from the boiling water, letting the excess water drain for a few moments, and place them back on the sheet pan, rounded side up.
7. Brush each bagel with egg wash and sprinkle with whatever topping you want. Then place them right away into the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are browned and sound hollow when you tap them. Transfer to a cooling rack and let them cool to room temperature.
These homemade bagels are amazing when you eat them fresh. They are also really fun to give away. Enjoy!
One of the benefits of living in the Midwest is that in the summer time, corn is extremely inexpensive. When the sweet corn crop is in full swing — around July through September — it can get as low as $.10/ear or even less. That makes it one of the affordable vegetables you can buy.
The best thing about sweet corn is that it is so versatile. You can eat it off the cob or cut it off and eat it as a side dish. Or it can be incorporated into just about anything.
In fact, today corn is probably the most important crop in the US, even more so than wheat. That’s because there are a lot of uses for it besides eating it, such as the alternate fuel ethanol, feed for livestock, distillation into whiskey and other liquors, the sweetener high fructose corn syrup, industrial applications, and many others.
Where I live, in northeast Illinois, corn is the biggest and most important crop. As soon as you get out of the city and suburbs of Chicago, you find hundreds of miles of corn fields in every direction. Farmers around here alternate their fields with corn one year then with soybean the next in order to provide the most nutrients in the soil to ensure maximum yield of both crops.
Generally, Illinois corn isn’t used for eating. Most of it is sent to factory farms where it is used to feed livestock. The rest is sent either downriver to Peoria where for generations it was turned into corn mash and other liquors at the Hiram Walker distillery. Archer Daniels Midland now uses corn to make vodka, gin and other liquors at the plant.
Or the Illinois corn travels upriver to Summit, outside Chicago, where it is used to make corn starch at the big Argo plant, which is about three miles from my home. I can often smell aroma of cornstarch being made when the wind is blowing from the west.
Personally, I love the taste of charred sweet corn. As its name implies, sweet corn is full of natural sugars.So when you let it get a nice dark char, the sugars will caramelize, giving it a unique and delicious flavor.
Usually, I will cut the charred corn off the cob so that I can add it to salads, sauté it with zucchini or other vegetables, or toss it by itself with a little olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper.
All you do is remove the corn from the husk and pull off any silk, then boil it for about nine minutes. I will often do this ahead of time — such as in the morning — then store the fully-cooked cob corn in the refrigerator until I’m ready to grill it.
Spray it with a little pan spray, season it with salt and pepper, then throw it onto a pre-heated grill. You don’t have to pay a lot of attention to it. Just turn it once or twice so that it gets a relatively even char.
Remove it from the grill, let it cool completely, then use a knife to cut it off the cob. Charred corn can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for at least a month until you are ready to use it. It’s very handy to have around and will add a sweet distinctive flavor to just about anything.
Thanks to efficient transportation, fresh corn still in the husk from Florida, California and Mexico is available pretty much year round. But it is at its sweetest, freshest and cheapest during the height of summer here in Chicago.
Since we moved into our house in 2004, we have been planting a bigger and bigger garden every year. This year, however, we have more than doubled the size of our backyard garden. Plus, we are committed to keeping it 100% organic.
The larger garden wasn’t my idea. One day, I came home and Sandi had cut down all the bushes and small trees that had been growing along the back fence of our yard, about a 20-foot line of shrubs. She simply decided that she didn’t like it anymore.
We also noticed that an area along our driveway, which had been covered with stones, was the area that was getting the most sunlight of any area in our yard. So we removed about eight feet of the stone, filled it with topsoil and planted it as a squash garden.
The problem with having a garden that is more than twice the size is that it requires more than twice the attention. Fortunately, over the past several years we have learned a lot from the many gardening mistakes we have made. This year, for example, we planted tomato plants far apart from each other so that we won’t have the tomato jungle that characterized our late summer garden in previous years.
We originally erected a three-foot wire fence to keep the dogs out of the garden, but our new puppy, Max, who joined our family last December, surprised us by being the pit bull high jump world champion and kept getting himself trapped inside the garden. So we had to tear that fence down and built a four-foot fence.
It’s only mid-July and already we are beginning to get some zucchini, yellow squash, patty pan squash, jalapenos, green peppers and cucumbers. There are tomatoes on all four types of plants — beefsteak, teardrop, plum and heirlooms — as well as tiny pumpkins and strawberries coming in. The only thing we are still waiting to see are the green beans.
We also are having trouble with one certain spot of land. We tried spinach on it, but they all shriveled and died. So then we planted snap peas, but they don’t seem to be doing well, either. I don’t know if it’s because we planted them too late — they are an early or late crop, I learned after they were in the ground — or if there’s something wrong with the soil in that spot. We’ll see how they do.
A recent bout of high humidity combined with heavy rains caused an explosive growth spurt, as evidenced by the size of some of our zucchinis, which literally grew overnight.
I anticipate a heavy yield this year. We had more tomatoes, peppers and jalapenos last year than we knew what to do with. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like this year, especially since we’re already getting a lot of vegetables. I may have to open my own farm stand!
Have you planted a garden this year? How is it doing? What have you planted? What sort of problems are you having? I just love gardening, don’t you?
When I switched to a vegan-ist diet about seven weeks ago, I did so because of the purported health benefits.
As many recent books, documentaries and other bloggers have claimed, eliminating meat, dairy and processed food from your diet can reduce your chances of contracting chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can improve your overall daily health. And it has even been known to reverse certain medical conditions, including arthritis, high blood pressure and anemia.
I can personally attest that I have had more energy since going vegan-ist. I feel stronger, have suffered fewer minor injuries while running, and generally have a more optimistic outlook and less anxiety and stress. Given what I had read and seen prior to making the switch, I sort of expected — or at least hoped — that these things would happen.
What I didn’t expect, however, was for my sense of taste and smell to improve so much. Even with my usual summer allergies, I can smell things better than ever before, such as subtle aromas around our home or the different types of cooking smells I encounter while running through my neighborhood.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that food tastes better when you start eating clean, and it’s true! For one, you have to pay more attention to the selection and preparation of your food, so I think you naturally focus more on tasting it when you eat. And because you eat mostly fresh produce, grains, nuts and so on, the flavors aren’t buried under mounds of preservatives, pesticides, steroids, genetic modification, growth hormones and other fallout from modern processed food.
But because my sense of smell is more enhanced, the flavors of food are more dynamic.
Now, I know this all may be wishful thinking on my part. In fact, my mom and Sandi were joking the other day that I would be off vegan and on to some other obsession in a couple of months, like I always do.
Maybe so. But for the time being, I’m going to enjoy the explosive flavors of these amazing foods. If only for a little while.
Here’s a quick and easy Pineapple Cashew Stir Fry I have been making lately. As I’ve noted in an earlier blog, stir fry can be just about anything. But the sweet tartness of the fresh pineapple (perfectly in season right now) combined with the crunchiness of the cashews really made this one taste exceptionally delicious.
Pineapple Cashew Stir Fry
1 to 2 TBS Coconut Oil
2-1/5 cups White Rice, cooked
1/2 Red Onion, slivered
1/2 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned
2 White Mushrooms, sliced thin
1/2 Zucchini, cut into medallions
3 Garlic Cloves, crushed
3/4 cup Fresh Pineapple, large dice
1/2 cup Baked Tofu (recipe below)
1/2 cup Cashews, roughly chopped
1/4 cup Soy Aminos (or Reduced Sodium Soy Sauce)
3/4 cup Water
1 TBS Corn Starch
Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
1. Place a large non-stick sauté pan or wok over a high flame. Leave it there for about a minute or two so it gets very hot. Add coconut oil. It will start to smoke in about 10 to 15 seconds. Add the onions and peppers and toss. Cook until slightly wilted, about 2 minutes, tossing frequently. Then add tofu, zucchini and pineapple. Toss/cook for about a minute.
2. Meanwhile, in a glass measuring cup, combine the soy aminos, water and corn starch and stir together. Set aside. Add garlic to the pan. When it becomes aromatic, about 10-20 seconds, add the liquid to the pan and stir. Within about a minute, it will turn into a glaze. At the last second, add the cashews and season with the freshly ground pepper. Given the sodium in the soy aminos or soy sauce, you won’t need to add any additional salt. Toss everything together, remove from heat and cover until ready to serve.
3. To plate, spoon about 3/4 cup of white rice onto on side of a pasta bowl, then spoon the stir fry onto the other side of the bowl. If you want to be really fancy, make it into a yin-yang pattern. Or press the rice into a small bowl and invert it into the top-center of the plate and arrange the stir fry around it. Garnish with additional cashews, sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds or whatever you like.
Tofu is made from soybeans and is a handy ingredient to have lying around. It comes in a variety of forms, including silken, firm and extra firm. Silken is quite soft, doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and will fall apart when handled.
Firm tofu has a slightly tougher texture, but will still crumble quite easily. I like to use it in place of scrambled eggs sometimes.
Extra firm tofu will hold its structure, so it can be sliced and diced into any size you want.
Both firm and extra firm tofu come packed in water. You will want to gently squeeze some of the water out before you use it.
This recipe is very versatile. It can be kept in the refrigerator and used to add texture and additional protein to salads, stir fry, casseroles, chili, stews or practically any dish. I seasoned this one with Garam Masala, a mixture of Indian spices, but you could just as easily use chili powder and cumin, Italian seasoning and granulated garlic, simple salt and pepper, or nothing at all.
2 tsp Garam Masala (or whatever spices you want)
14 oz package Extra Firm Tofu
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a baking sheet with pan spray.
2. Remove tofu from package and gently squeeze out excess water. Cut into 1/2 inch slices and place on baking sheet. Spray tofu with pan spray then sprinkle with half the spice mixture. Bake for 15 minutes.
3. Remove from oven. Use a spatula to gently turn each tofu slice, sprinkle with remaining spice mixture and return to oven for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.
4. When cool, cut tofu slices into cubes. These will keep in your refrigerator up to a wek. You can also freeze them for up to two months.
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. -jack gilbert
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