Friday, May 28, 2010

Say "Cheese!"

No, I did not die of mushroom poisoning. I've been in the midst of a lot of trial-and-error involving my latest food project, cheese making.

I've been interested in learning how to make cheese for a while now. It started when I got a lot of powdered skim milk to use up from buying it in bulk.

Powdered milk is an excellent survival food, and comes in handy pretty often - just not often enough to use up about 12 gallons' worth. I'll be going into survival foods in a later entry - that will be a fun subject to experiment with.

Problem is, most of my previous efforts in cheese making resulted in some scorched-milk concoction not resembling anything edible.

Four or five gallons of wasted milk later, I can finally make a form of cheese that I will eat rather than tossing into the compost.

Paneer, sometimes spelled panir, is a simple Indian cheese that can be crumbled and eaten fresh, cooked like tofu (it holds its shape and takes on flavors just as easily), or preserved in a brine like feta. It doesn't require any rennet or aging, so it is perfect for a quick project that is vegetarian-friendly.

I used my paneer in lasagna, and a greek salad.

Here's how it's done.

Heat milk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, very, very slowly. I used two quarts of reconstituted skim milk. The higher the milkfat percentage, the more dense and full-flavored your cheese will be. Skim is ideal if you want a more crumbly cheese, like feta. I say heat it slowly because if you scorch it, the taste will ruin your finished cheese. Start over a double-boiler if possible, graduating to a low flame after the milk reaches 100 degrees F. Once it hits 180, go back to the double boiler or reduce the flame to just keep it warm.

Pour in a 1/2 cup vinegar for every gallon of milk. Since I had two quarts, I used 1/4 cup. The milk will separate into curds and whey.

Separate the curds (the solid stuff) from the whey (the liquid stuff) by straining it through cheesecloth or a clean towel. It helps to dampen the cloth before pouring the mixture through so it will stick to the sides of the container you are using, and not fall in when you start to pour.

Reserve the whey if you don't want to be wasteful. It can be used in baking or for boiling pasta.

Hang the cloth with the cheese in it over a bowl (I prefer in the refrigerator, some leave it on their countertop, but that can be dangerous if you forget about it) for a few hours, then remove the ball of cheese and slice, dice, or crumble.

Here's my finished paneer, sliced.

I cured some in a brine (water, salt, vinegar, garlic and oregano) for salads, and used the rest as a layer for lasagna.

Another easy recipe is yogurt cheese, made by simply straining yogurt through clean cloth or a filter. It's like cream cheese, only healthier and sometimes cheaper. If you want to make cheese, but don't want to go through any cooking or measuring, that's a great one to start with.

Next up: Survival foods - foods that can be stored for emergency situations or foraged in the wild, including ways to obtain clean, drinkable water.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hunting for the gun-shy - Mushrooms!

I've been asked about identifying and locating Morel mushrooms in Minnesota. While I'm not familiar with the locations for foraging this particular species, I realized that I have seen some beautiful mushrooms on my walks along the Mississippi, and decided to dig some up for research and experimentation.

I packed my camera, a few mesh bags, and waited for ideal conditions. The best time to look for mushrooms, I've been told, is after a decent amount of rain. I read that I should forage near bodies of water, fallen trees, and organic debris. One of my usual walking spots fit the bill perfectly.

After a good rain, I walked down to the shore of the Mississippi and followed the walking trails South. Two hours and a few miles later, I found my very first foraged mushroom!

Close to downtown Minneapolis, the trail I walked along turned up 2 more decent sized mushrooms, which I gathered and took home to identify.

The specimens I found were large in size (over 4 inches across the cap), had thick stalks, and pink to dark brown gills. They were found growing out of the soil, among grasses and debris from nearby trees.

I looked up their characteristics on a few sites:,, and As far as I can tell, what I have found are a species of Agaricus, which are said to be edible.

(An official photo of Agaricus Arvenesis, from

But first, it's time for the Universal Edibility Test, adapted from the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

9:00 AM - Upon waking, I eat only saltine crackers and water. For the duration of the test, only water is typically allowed, but I'm not looking to go on a fast here. I touch a small part of the largest mushroom to the inside of my arm, and wait 4-5 hours to check for any reaction.

2:00 PM - No visible or tactile skin reaction. I slice the largest mushroom, and soak it in water to rinse away any dirt or insects.

2:30 PM - Chewed, but did not swallow, a piece of the largest mushroom to check for sensitivity. Tastes good, like a portobello.

3:00 PM - Took a tiny piece of the largest mushroom, about the size of a pea, and ate it raw.

3:30 PM - Tired of eating crackers, I compromise the integrity of the Edibility Test by eating some lasagna. I ate some yesterday as well, so I know if I'm sick it won't be from that.

2 days later, I have had no adverse effects, so I proceed with making my Wild Mushroom and Shrimp Risotto.

Here's the recipe:

1 cup sliced mushrooms (I used the ones I foraged, but portobellos are good)
2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup arborio rice
3 cups chicken stock
1 Tablespoon white truffle oil
1 teaspoon sea salt (omit the salt if you are using salted stock or broth)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3 Tablespoons chopped chives
1 cup salad shrimp, preferably raw
1/4 cup heavy cream

Brown the rice in the butter, and heat the stock.
Add the stock to the rice, a half-cup at a time, stirring constantly or at least fairly often.
When each half-cup of stock has soaked into the rice, add another. Repeat until rice is cooked, but not super soft. It should still have a "bite" to it.
Saute the mushrooms in the truffle oil, and add the shrimp and seasonings to the pan. The shrimp will cook fast, so remove the pan from the heat once they're added.
Mix the mushroom mixture into the rice, add the cream, stir, and serve.

I'm considering joining the Minnesota Mycological Society, so I can do this again without the possibility of poisoning myself.

Remember, don't try foraging at home unless you or someone you know can positively identify your wild mushrooms.

Happy Hunting!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Prison food - If they can call it that.

When reading up on ramen recipes, I stumbled upon vast resources for recipes created by and for prison inmates.

While I realize that obviously prison is meant to be a punishment, the idea of some of these recipes makes me wonder which is worse - the incarceration, or the food?

We shall see...

First, I'll cover something called "spread." From what I gather, spread is a combination of every kind of food you can obtain from a vending machine, mixed up and used as a dip for chips or crackers. Sounds horrid, but I've eaten Mulligan Stew (aka Booyah), so how bad could it be, right?

So I grab a "recipe" from, contributed by KConnor56:

"The Spread:
The main ingredient is Top Raman soup. Use 1 soup per person (if you put alot of extras, 2 soups for 3 people), crunch up the noodles & throw in the spices from the little packet. Don't worry about mixing flavors (it's all good). Pour noodles & spices into trash bag. Now comes the fun part you start adding all the stuff you like, cans of tuna, hot sauce, flavored popcorn, spicy cheetoes, corn chips, (don't use potatoe chips), basically you throw in anything you can get. Then you add enough HOT water to cook the mess, tie the trash bag closed & let it cook. You spread a newspaper (AFTER it's been read) on a table & open up the trash bag & everyone grabs a fork & you all stand around this spread eat & talk. If you cook this for a guy on the outside he will probably leave you."

Love the last part. Not so much the spread, though. Ick. Here's an example of what spread looks like (and a visual of what it tastes like, if you catch my drift):

Photo courtesy of Hubpages

After that horrifying experience, it was time to move on to less vomit-inducing fare.

There's Frito Pie, which I actually quite enjoy here on the outside, when the munchies hit.

Canned cheese dip
Canned bean dip, or just canned beans
Hot sauce

Throw the cheese, beans, and hot sauce into the bag of Fritos, and you're ready to go! Actually pretty good stuff, even if it does end up looking like dog food.

Next there's prison "cake," not the quintessential cake with a file baked in, but one that could be made in a cell.

"Cakes" made for fellow inmates are usually layers of crushed cookies and candy, and aren't so much a cake as a pie.

Oreos or other creme-filled cookies
M&Ms or chocolate candies
Peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, or jam

The cookies are separated from the fillings, and then crushed to make a crust. The filling is then mixed with the peanut butter/jam/fluff, and layered on this, with the chocolate candies as a topping. Sounds good, if not diabetic coma-inducing. But I guess a sugar high is the most one can hope for in prison.

Speaking of inebriation, there's also "hooch" or cell-made wine. Also called juice, pruno, jump, brew, chalk, buck, or raisin jack, among other unique and unusual names.

While obviously against the rules, prisoners find all kinds of ways to ferment sugary liquids into something resembling a beverage. Curious as to how this would taste, I decided to make some hooch of my own.

Since I am impatient, I added a bit of yeast to mine to speed up the brewing process. My hooch is sugar-water, straight up, fermented in an old vinegar bottle. I didn't get photos of my process, but here's what it looks like:

Photo courtesy of scott28.

Yup, that's a balloon on top. The balloon has a few small holes poked in it, to allow the resulting gases to escape, while not letting in any outside bacteria, yeast, or fungi. Not that food safety is really of much concern to many of these guys.

After a couple weeks, the balloon deflates, and then you know your hooch is ready to get you crunk!

I tasted it, thinking that the stink would make me gag, but it really just tasted like semi-flat, watery, skunky beer. But damn, was it strong! Mix that with a little kool-aid, soda, or juice, and it's party time till the guards come along.

Now that I'm full of all kinds of things that could barely be called food, as well as a substance that might be regrettable in a few hours, I'd better call it a day.

If this doesn't deter you from crime, I don't know what will!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Food as Art

The concept of food as a form of art has been around at least as long as any of us alive today, but most people are unaware of the extent to which art and food are related

Some of us created "macaroni art" in elementary school, painting and gluing dried pasta on a piece of construction paper, or stringing pieces together to make jewelry (which we inevitably gave to our parents, who placated us with an "Oh, how nice!" while trying to figure out how to avoid having to display or wear such a monstrosity).

You might have seen cakes decorated with flowers, as in the photo displayed here. This is a gumpaste rose, on a rolled fondant cake. With a little time and patience, you can make very realistic forms with gumpaste, fondant, and frosting. Even the "pearls" on this piece were edible!

Perhaps you had chocolate bunnies at easter. Seen often around Easter in confectioners, drugstores, and anywhere you find chocolate, these too are a form of food art. While they are commercially produced in mass quantities (not what we'd typically refer to as art), these shapes take the time and effort of several skilled artists to design and to create the mold they are cast from.

On to the more obscure forms of food art.. that's what we're here for!

Spun sugar:

For those who are into high-carb art, this is an amazing medium with limitless possibilities. When sugar is heated to the correct temperature, it takes on a form similar to that of melted glass. You can pull it to make strands, as seen here, or you can blow it into bubble-like shapes, adding additional pieces, pinching and pulling areas, to create any shape you desire!

The forms shown in this photo were molded over small inflated balloons. I heated my sugar, added a little coloring in some batches, and dipped a fork into the melted sugar. From a few inches distance, and while wearing glasses to protect my eyes, I manipulated the pliable sugar strands around the balloon. After cooling, the balloon was punctured near the base and allowed to deflate slowly. The result is a spun-sugar bowl, suitable for serving fruit or a thick mousse in.

Spun sugar is an excellent substitute for the melted sugar glaze on a creme brulee. Just make the sugar shapes in advance, and place them on top of the chilled brulee for a decorative accent. They're edible, attractive, and you won't risk shattering your nice custard dishes under the broiler!

Fruit and Vegetable Sculptures:

Find it hard to get the daily requirement of fresh veggies into your diet, or your children's? Try making it entertaining!

See this site of fruit and veggie sculptures for some inspiration:

My favorite:

Large fruits can be carved into baskets for holding fruit salad, or root vegetables like turnips and parsnips can be hollowed out, baked, and filled with a savory side like stuffing or soup. Large squash and pumpkins make excellent decorative bowls for their respective soups.

Use your imagination - look at a vegetable carefully, and think of what shape it could become. Most fancy garnishes are just small forms of vegetable or fruit sculpture. Next time you get an interestingly shaped food at a restaurant, ask if you can inquire as to how this was accomplished. Many cooks and chefs are willing to share their techniques if asked.


This Japanese form of food art is ideal for making a homemade lunch more enjoyable. It is similar to the fruit and vegetable carving, but includes other foods such as rice, bread, meats, and condiments.

Rice is a very common staple in Japanese bento boxes. Often the rice is molded into interesting shapes, or topped with cute designs made up of condiments and additional ingredients.

Here are some amazingly unique bento creations:

My favorite:

You don't need an authentic bento box to make your own bento creation. Tupperware, reused food tubs or baby food jars, and other storage solutions can make a bento box just as tasty, and just as appealing.

Meat Art:

Yeah, I know, it sounds gross, but you'd be surprised. Here's my first view of Meat Art, from

Now, fill that cup with some lettuce and tomatoes, and I'm good to go!

View the entire gallery at:

Now you might ask: "What about food styling? Isn't that food art?"

In a way, yes, they are depicting food in their art. But so much of what you see on TV and in printed advertisements is not actually the food you think it is.

That turkey that looks golden and crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside? It wasn't even cooked! Likely it was barely seared with a torch, spray painted, and manipulated with photo imaging software to look more appetizing. A fully cooked turkey dries out too much to be photographed under hot lights in a studio.

That cool, creamy ice cream? Likely it is actually a potato based mixture, lard, or a vegetable shortening with colorings and additional ingredients to give it the appearance of the flavor it is representing. In many restaurants that show you a plate of example desserts to choose from, they use this same practice.

That cake with the perfect layers? Likely held up by layers of syrofoam or cardboard, to prevent drooping and uneven form. They just pipe additional icing (usually also not very edible) in front of the foam or board supports to hide them.

Many use a cake-comb to fix the appearance of cut pieces of cake, since the knife drags down the top layer when it is cut. My secret: I cut the cake from side to side, rather than top to bottom. It comes out picture-perfect, without photo manipulation or a cake comb.

Hope you've learned something new! If you have any interesting examples of food art, or you want to show off your own, send me a photo or a link.

Happy Wednesday, everyone!