it doesn’t get more cheesy than this

My charcuterer friend Del has started making farmstead cheese for Paul and his crew at Laughing Stock Farm in the rolling hills south of Eugene.  It’s only for their consumption, alas, because of regulations about raw milk and related issues relative to cheese making.  But the dairy production by the farm and neighbors, plus the commercial grade equipment and facilities that Paul already has in place from many years of goat cheese making provides awesome materials to play with for culinary mad geniuses like Del.

We started the day with over a hundred pounds of fresh cow milk from a neighboring farm and freshly distilled rennet.  Sheep gamboled among apple blossoms.  Curious barn cats eyed our wares.  Pigs squealed in the barns, eager for whey.  A herd of goats came passing by our trailer, fresh from milking.  Chickens laid eggs ’til it hurt.  A neighbor came by to discuss gathering herbs for herbal tonic, the dregs of a pilsner batch, and canning tuna.  A venerable basset hound kept court over the entire proceedings.  In short, it was just another day at the farm.

Making cheese is fascinating, and I hope to have many opportunities to hone my own skills this summer, if Del will have me back.  I’ve taken a few cheesemaking classes with the Extension Master Food Preservers, and even taught cheese demos (reminding one of the old professor joke: read it? I haven’t even taught it!) but my knowledge is very limited and largely text-based.  So why not test it out with a giant stockpot filled to the rim with milk in an ingenious hot water bath that uses a pump and immersible heating element to keep the milk at temperature?  Gouda enough for me.

Once the curds and whey were separated and the curds condensed into those squeaky little nuggets that are so fun to eat, Del set to pressing the curds into molds with an industrial strength metal press.  It’s an amazing device made out of stainless steel bars and a clamp.  I had seen smaller versions, much smaller versions, but this was for the big boys.

Before, the stuff of Miss Muffet’s dreams.

After the first press.  The cheese is flipped over and returned to the mold, where it is pressed again, then salted and cured in Del’s lovely cheese and sausage cave.

Can’t wait to taste the results!

endless blackberry summer, with panna cotta

Now that the rains are back, you didn’t think I’d leave you high and dry about the panna cotta with blackberries, didya?

This recipe is so simple it’s almost a non-recipe, if you just have time the night before to make the panna cotta and the syrup.  Imagine a silky, milky custard that coats your mouth like sweet, thick, slightly sour cream.  If you haven’t tried making panna cotta yet, it’s a breeze, and a perfect base for fresh fruit in hot weather, since you only have to heat up the cream to a simmer.

Mario Batali’s panna cotta recipe with goat milk yogurt is floating around the internets tubes, but I find it to be a bit, well, gamey with the yogurt and what seems like a gallon of vanilla.  I love you Mario, you know I do.  You know I really, really love you and felt my heart crumble when the Food Network replaced your show with smiling skulls with raucous voices and ghastly quick-cooking abominations.  But I like the purity of my sour cream-no vanilla panna cotta better.

I use our delicious local dairy products: Noris Dairy cream and Nancy’s cultured sour cream, which is thicker and a bit tangier than the Noris version.  Then I turn to Lone Pine Farm’s gigantic, sweetsour blackberries, whose variety is, as the kid behind the counter told me, “blackberry.”  They’re not Marionberries, since that season is over, and I suspected they were Chesters, but that’s not right, either.  If you have a chance to get over there and find someone who actually knows something, please let me in on the secret.  More importantly, everyone should know that our blackberries never, ever end all summer long.  Can you imagine?!

And finally, Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Pinot Gris syrup.  He uses it to make a lovely drink at Bel Ami called the East of Eden; I use it in jam and fruit preparations West of Willamette Ave.  If we had a battle for deliciousness, he’d probably win because the judges would float into the sky, head in the stars, caressed by the rosy fingers of dawn.  I’d pelt them with blackberries, though, and down they’d fall, a Pyrrhic victory of Willamette Valley proportions.

Willamette Valley Panna Cotta with Pinot Gris Blackberries

Serves 6

Panna Cotta:

  • 2 cup Noris Dairy cream
  • 1 1/4 cup Nancy’s cultured sour cream
  • 1 1/2 t. gelatin
  • 2 T. water
  • 1/3 cup sugar

Combine gelatin and water in small bowl.  Let sit for 5 minutes to dissolve.

Whisk sour cream and one cup of the cream in bowl until lumps dissolve.

Bring the remaining one cup of cream and the sugar to simmer over medium heat.  Stir to melt sugar frequently.  Add the gelatin mix, whisking rapidly, until it dissolves.

Remove from heat and combine with cream and sour cream mixture.

Pour into ramekins and chill overnight.

Pinot Gris Blackberries:

  • Three half-pints of the finest, biggest blackberries you can find, rinsed
  • 2 T. pinot gris syrup (see recipe below)
  • Dash allspice

Crush about one cup of blackberries in a small bowl.  Add pinot gris syrup and dash allspice.  Carefully toss with remaining blackberries in large bowl, and let macerate in refrigerator for several hours before serving.  Turn berries every few hours.  Garnish with wild blackberry flowers, if those damn brambles keep coming back in your yard, no matter what you do.

Morgenthaler’s Pinot Gris Syrup:

Keep this in your refrigerator for a fragrant alternative to simple syrup.  Our local Sweet Cheeks Winery‘s 2006 Estate Pinot Gris is particularly nice for drinks and desserts, since it has bright, summery stonefruit flavors.

1 bottle Sweet Cheeks Pinot Gris
12 oz. sugar

Reduce wine by half in a saucepan over medium heat.  This will take a while.  Stir in sugar and cook until liquid is clear.  Let cool, and keep in a sealed jar or bottle in the refrigerator.  Keeps for at least a few months, as the sugar is a preservative.


Amuses bouches have hit the unhip boroughs of our fine country (read: not New York).  Now, everyone is amusing their bouches with them.  Frankly, they’ve been uncool since 2002 among the hipsters, but since we don’t orbit in that galaxy, Daddy-o, we shall press on.

Trying to be hip myself (and thus always already outmoded), I’d say they are Derridean food, but it’s easier to prove and more 2008 if I just spit it out: they are tiny mouthfuls of fun that precede the appetizers in your fancy restaurant meal.  Like appetizers, but smaller and more liberated, contradictory even — more fanciful, less leaden and less predictable.  Amuses bouches are like the Beat Girl of appetizers:

(Yes, I watched this last night.  You’re seeing the best of it.  Well, maybe a café scene or two is better, especially since they use two of my husband’s favorite phrases, “you wanna fight?  Then join the army,” and “aw, nuts.”  He’ll be pleased to know the former phrase contained an even better ending: “you wanna fight?  Then join the army!  That’s what all the squares are doing.”)

But ANYWAY.  Amuses bouches come from Paris, like Gillian Hills, the star of Beat Girl.  There, they’re often called amuses gueules by the French poodles, which is too hard to say for us squares, so they became known as amuses bouches.

I translate these amusing mouthfuls most often when I have a very rich or very garlicky dish.  My cream of kabocha pumpkin soup with bacon, for example, served at Thanksgiving.  Or two or three strange flavors that might be overwhelming if they were served in larger portions, like this seared flank steak with Fraga Farm raw milk goat feta, boysenberry, and homemade blackberry-thyme vinegar.  Just one mouthful, that’s the ticket, dad, something that makes your tastebuds sing.  And sing they did:  the metallic tang of the meat, the funk of the creamy fresh cheese, the tart musk of the berry, and the echo of vinegar.

Needless to say, with les amuses bouches, one needs to use absolutely pristine ingredients.  Shell out for grass-fed local beef, Oregon Tilth (the big organic certifier around these parts) cheese, and just picked berries that you’ve rushed home from the vine.  Your guests will be wild for those kicks, even if you’re a bit behind the times, verging, dare I say it, on square.

And that’s what I’ve got for you today.  I’m gonna fade out, doll.  Zero.

of bicycle tour maps and new potatoes with mint

Retrogrouch has been in training for a long bike trip, and we’ve been discussing the particulars.  He’s adamant about being old-school, and I’m itching to play with the dehydrator and dry him 10-course meals for the journey, so we have very different plans.  But we agree that he needs appropriate clothing.

So he sends me this film made by the British Transport Film group, an account of the Bicyclists’ Special Touring Excursion to Rugby on May 8, 1955, with a note saying he plans to model his “entire look on these chaps.”

So I watch it… As expected, not my cup of tea.  Bikes, English people, bikes, bikes, trains, bikes, bikes, bike parts, ooh–there’s some tea…and bikkies!, bikes, bikes, healthy young people, bikes, propaganda, bikes, trains, bikes, bikes…then, hello!

“H. H. England, the Editor of Cycling, knows that a cycling tour without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint.”

My interest is piqued.  Minted new potatoes! Who knew!? What kind of a British conspiracy kept this delicious secret from the Yanks?  I look it up, thinking the mint would be added raw to the cooked potatoes, but discovered they BOIL the potatoes with mint!  Wow.

So we cycled out (ok, I drove) and bought some local new potatoes called German Butterballs, a yellow, lovely potato, and a head of new garlic, large and well-formed but still with undifferentiated cloves.  With herbs from my garden, it was an easy side dish.

The video itself is pretty interesting — socialism on bikes, sponsored by the railway network propaganda machine.  Bits of history and British imperialism sneak in every so often.  And check out those woolen cycling knickers.

More importantly, however, is the existence of MINTED NEW POTATOES.  I don’t normally steal recipes wholesale, and if I do, I certainly don’t blog about them, but this one was so beautiful and pristine that I couldn’t resist.  OK, I did change it just a teeny tiny bit, by accenting the mint cooking liquid with more chopped mint, and adding both lemon and French thyme, plus their blossoms, to the potatoes.

I don’t know much about the British cook Nigel Slater, other than he seems to be a lyrical writer and a good cook dedicated to the ebb and flow of British seasonal cooking, so you bet I’d like to know more. In this recipe, he boils the potatoes as usual with mint sprigs, then smashes each one in a baking dish, dots the potatoes with an herb and garlic butter, then bakes just until the top is until crusty and browned.

I’d like to think Mr. Slater would approve of my use of local butter, potatoes, new garlic, and herbs.  Not very British, no, but as right as a tour with a map.

Bicycle Tour With A Map Minted New Potatoes

Serves 4 as a side dish.

  • 1 pound new potatoes around the same size, no more than three inches in diameter
  • a handful of clean, fresh mint sprigs (4-5 large ones), two set aside for garnishing
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 3 T. minced new garlic (not garlic scapes)
  • 1 T. fresh thyme
  • freshly ground pepper and sea salt
  • sprigs of mint and thyme to garnish

Scrub potatoes well without peeling (new potatoes have flaky, thin skins — see image above).  Place in pot and cover with cold water.  Add several mint sprigs, reserving enough to add some to the finished dish and as a garnish.

While the potatoes are boiling, mince new garlic and thyme, then mash into the butter in a small bowl.  Add sea salt and freshly ground pepper to the butter to taste.

Boil potatoes until a thin knife can pierce them easily.  Drain potatoes, discarding mint.

Preheat broiler on high.  Place each potato in a Pyrex baking dish, and smash each one lightly with a fork, so the insides are bared but you can still see the shape of the potato.  Dot each potato with the compound butter, and broil only until top is browned, just a few moments.  If you’d like crustier potatoes, bake rather than broil at around 425 until crustiness is achieved, but I, for one, couldn’t wait, and won’t blame you if you can’t, either.  Garnish with more mint, mint sprigs, and more thyme flowers.

Serve immediately.  Your special excursion train to Rugby is pulling into the station.