How to make non-dairy cheese for pizza

Milk – cow or goat – is not my friend.  I’ve been off dairy for close to 15 years now, and I’ve mostly gotten used to it.  Far from the days when my mom called me “Miss Mouse” for all the cheese I ate, nowadays much cheese tastes funny to me.  Thee big exception is that I really miss cheese on a pizza.  We have homemade pizza almost every Friday night, and I’ve gone through variations with no cheeselike toppings (reeeeeeeallly dry) to “tofu ricotta” (tasty but  a bit wet) to vegan cheez shreds. My first impression of Daiya was “ye gods, this is awful – smells like gym socks and coats the roof of my mouth.”  Not to mention it’s made with pea protein, to which I am also allergic (though not so much as the dairy).

The tofu ricotta is pretty easy to make and definitely helps avoid the “bread with ketchup” feeling of a no-cheese pizza.  Just crumble medium or firm tofu with a fork and add salt (1/2 tsp or more for a block of tofu) and something acidic (my favorite is a teaspoon each of olive brine and cider vinegar). You can also season it with garlic and Italian herbs.  Drain off any excess liquid after a few minutes.  It doesn’t melt or have that rich flavor cheese has, but it’s easy and tasty.

But I was hoping for something better, and I think I found it! Skye Michael Conroy is a vegan food scientist who analyzed what it is about cheese that tastes good and makes us happy, then did a ton of experimentation until settling on a group of recipes and a method for making soy- and almond-based cheeses (and some cashew-based ones, too). I highly recommend buying The Non-Dairy Evolution Cookbook for the recipe and method.

Homemade non-dairy cheese made from soy milk and coconut oil

Homemade non-dairy cheese made from soy milk and coconut oil

I didn’t get any pictures as I was making it, because it goes fairly fast and requires constant stirring. It also requires some special ingredients, but I think the results are totally worth it.  Knocks Daiya out of the water, that’s for sure – it’s got the best flavor and texture of any fake cheese I’ve ever tasted.

Here’s the finished product of the Monterrey Jack recipe. The larger container will go into the fridge to chill into a block, which can then be shredded or sliced. The smaller container has pretty much cooled, and I was sampling it from the still-melted stage through the mostly-cooled stage.

So how do you make it? The basic method is to whisk tapioca starch (also called tapioca flour), kappa carrageenen, salt, and nutritional yeast into your soy milk as you heat it on the stove. Then add melted coconut oil and whisk some more. At this point, it looks exactly like cheese fondue before you get all the liquor mixed in.  When that reaches 175 degrees F, stir in a tablespoon of vinegar and whisk like crazy.  It magically smooths out and blends together. Then pour it into a container, which will act as your cheese mold.  For exact method and recipes, I will direct you to Conroy’s book – that amount of research really deserves your support. The book has recipes for a number of “block cheeses,” like mozzarella, dill havarti, pepper jack, and gouda, plus soft cheeses like Brie and even some blue cheeses, complete with blue “veins.”

This is honestly much easier – and LOADS faster – than making dairy cheese.  It uses a number of weird ingredients – kappa carrageenen is apparently very different from other kinds of carrageenen, and there are some brands that don’t work at all.  The stuff in the link above is specifically mentioned in the recipe, and it definitely worked for me.  You also need to be sure there is nothing in your soy milk except soy beans and water.  Eden Unsweetened and WestSoy are good brands; or, like me, you can make your own from whole beans. This cheese is also not cheap; I calculated it came to $4.25-$6.50 per 1 lb batch depending on whether you buy your ingredients in bulk.  And, of course, it is not terribly local and has some heavily-processed ingredients, and if you have a soy or nut allergy, these recipes won’t work for you.

Still, as a luxury food, it has several advantages: it’s tasty, it is a true comfort food, all the ingredients are shelf-stable and so easy to buy in bulk and store until needed, and…it makes my heart happy to not be left out of cheeselife entirely.  I will definitely make a few more batches and see if it’s worth the money and trouble to have this on my pizza. If it will keep for several weeks and I can get a number of pizzas out of it (and it continues to taste as good as the samples), it’s likely I will keep making it.

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Em’s food rules

Well, not really rules. More like guidelines.

Givens:

  1. Food serves biological, emotional, and cultural purposes.
  2. People have different biological, emotional, and cultural needs; therefore, there is no one “right way to eat” for everyone – even people in the same region, family, blood type, or other grouping.
  3. An individual’s food choices have an impact on others beyond the self: the beings one is eating, the environment in which those beings live and die, the ongoing health of the land and its ability to feed future beings.
  4. Generally speaking, the edibles of a place provide appropriate nutrition to survive and thrive in that place. Keep in mind the “edibles of a place” may include things you are not accustomed to thinking of as food: weeds, insects, blood, acorns, etc.
  5. Disasters happen: crops fail, vermin populations boom, warehouses burn, gardeners break arms.
  6. “Waste” is a human construct; in nature, all outputs are inputs somewhere else. Human choices can direct waste to benefit human endeavors.

Actions:

  1. Each person gets to decide her/his “right” way to eat. But please, folks, let that be a decision and not a default.
  2. The food economy needs to be both drastically more localized than it currently is, and needs to retain the ability to trade easily between regions in case of crop failure, destruction of stores, or other supply disasters.
  3. Food waste (at all stages of production) needs to be eliminated. And not just by feeding leftover coq au vin to the pigs.

Why am I doing this?

If you’ve ever wondered why I do the things I do – keep a carbon budget, build a root cellar, eat locally – or if you’ve ever worried that I’ve gone off the deep end, because really, honey, it’s ok and there’s really nothing to worry about, please read Sharon Astyk’s recent post: Since You Have to Change Anyway, You Might as Well Have Fun .

I hope y’all will join me in this effort, since there isn’t enough room for y’all to join me in my house.

Grateful for water

If you’re in the mood for gratitude today, go appreciate a nice drink of clean water.

Sprouting potatoes

I have something like 50 pounds of potatoes sprouting madly in the root cellar! What should I do with them, besides plant them?

On a side note, all of the Kennebecs are sprouting, but very few of the Yellow Finns are.

Betty Springfield: Thank her for your canning classes

Betty and Tom SpringfieldMy grandmother, Betty Springfield, didn’t teach me how to can (my mom did). And I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid, I preferred Vlassic pickles to her home-canned ones. (What can I say? Six-year olds think whatever they are familiar with is the One Right Way for things to taste.)

What Grandma did teach me, though, was that food mattered, and that growing your own food was a form of security and self-sufficiency.  Grandma grew up poor.  Dirt poor, you might say, on a hardscrabble farm in the hills of Tennessee.  I saw a picture once of a building I thought was maybe a corn crib – a small log cabin, essentially, smaller than my living room.  That was the house she’d spent the first eight or ten years of her life in, with her mother and two siblings.  Father, too, until he up and left one morning and never came back.  Her mother was often confined to bed, so Grandma started raising her younger siblings when she was about eight.  Eventually, they moved in with their grandparents, which was better – but still very tough.  Cash was always tight – but they always ate.  Cornmeal and sorghum – processed when the traveling mills came to down – and garden vegetables.  Hamburgers. (“Only my grandparents would let me eat a hamburger like a sandwich.  My mother made us use a knife and fork.”)  And, memorably, raw potatoes – snuck from the bin in the barn for a mid-afternoon snack when a growing girl, tired from schoolwork and farm chores, needed a bite of something – anything – to tide her over to dinner.

Fast forward forty years or so, to me sitting at Grandma’s big kitchen table, eating a carrot, while Grandma cooked dinner.  Grandpa always grew a huge garden, and Grandma put up all that produce.  I think she froze more than she canned, but grow-your-own was standard.  And I always got the first carrot of the year out of the garden, to eat with the greens still attached, like Bugs Bunny.  (At this late date, I realize I had no idea when carrots were in season, and no way of knowing how long the carrot row had been before I got my “first” carrot of the year!)  I’d eat my carrot, and watch grandma peel the vegetables into a container destined for “the mulch pile,” which Grandpa would turn and eventually spread on the garden to help it grow. No chemicals in this garden, thank you very much!

As Grandpa’s knees got worse, the garden shrank.  Grandma started buying produce at the grocery store, complaining bitterly that zucchini cost $X and came wrapped in plastic, two to a Styrofoam tray.  In her later years, she rejoiced that their food stamps were redeemable at the farmer’s market, and she could now get produce that was back up to her standards. Oh, and about those food stamps – did I mention that Grandpa started a very profitable business (look for a Delfield fridge next time you’re in a commercial kitchen or salad bar) and sold it for a very tidy sum before retiring, but due to health care and inflation, they absolutely required those food stamps for the last decade or two of their lives? So from poverty to prosperity and back, in one lifetime.  But they always lived like kings, in my eyes – Grandma’s long-practiced skills in the kitchen meant they ate well no matter what.

So this is a long way of saying, an intimate knowledge of food provenance and cooking was my “normal” growing up.  I read Laura Ingalls, and I looked at my grandma, and the only difference I saw was that Grandma could drive a car.  As I got older and understood more about Grandma’s difficult life, I realized that food was her security net: as long as there was a nutritious meal on the table, you could get through anything.

It’s that desire to keep people  fed that led to me founding Preserving Traditions in 2008.  I want to see Grandma’s level of food skills – preservation, cooking, and even production – to become normal again.  I want people to understand the fragility of our current food distribution system, and to have solid skills to fall back on should that become necessary.  And I think it will be necessary, very soon – if only because any of us could lose our jobs at any time, and gas prices could jump enough to double the price of many foodstuffs, and suddenly you realize your cheap, processed dinner is unaffordable, at best, and perhaps even entirely unavailable.

I also want people to see that though that kind of self-reliance may be scary, and is definitely a lot of work, it’s also entirely achievable and incredibly satisfying.  When you first prepare a meal that you thought “only a trained chef could cook” or to create a jam or pickle or cheese that you thought “is so complicated, it’s only reasonable to buy from a professional” – well, your heart swells with pride, and you start to realize, “I’m not helpless.  This is no longer a mystery.”  And I see that as Grandma’s greatest legacy: the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, some part of your fate is in your own hands – and the food on your table is a tangible, vital, wonderful place to start.

Grandma died Sunday, October 9th.  I was able to get to Boston and hold her hand before she died, but because of the stroke, I’m not sure she knew I was there.  In previous years, I’d tried to explain to her how she inspired me to step up my own food skills, and to teach others, but I’m not sure she understood, even then.  You see, Grandma always thought she’d been a nobody – just a poor girl from the hills, not one of the “important” people, like a doctor or lawyer.  She thought she was a doormat, never really understanding that she inspired me (and many others) as a paragon of self-sufficiency, of doing the best you could with what you had.  And her best was very, very good.

Thank you, Grandma, for everything.  You meant more to me – and to hundreds of other people – than you ever realized.

Food prices at Ann Arbor market skyrocketing!

Having been thinking lately about the lack of summer veggies in my garden, I pondered a few summer recipes and went to the farmers’ market on Saturday to stock up.

Yikes!

The thing that jumped out the most was the price of sweet corn.  I had finally wrapped my brain around corn being $3/doz, and 50 cents an ear for organic…but every stand was selling their corn for 50 cents and ear, usually without any discount for buying a dozen. I’m sorry, but $6 for a dozen ears of corn? Holy cow.  Mike, the farmer at the produce stand around the corner, said his seed corn prices went up 40% last year so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that much.

On the up side, I found corn was $4/doz at the Dexter market, and only $2/doz at Jenny’s Farm Stand.  So maybe it’s as much a matter of “what the market will bear” as actual increases in prices.

Other shocks: raspberries $7/qt, cabbages $3 each for a small head (usually $2).  Glad I put in a raspberry bed this year, and we have enough raspberry jam to last until next summer.  And given the way this year’s kale crop is going, I might swap out some kale in favor of growing my own cabbage next year. Well, if this year’s crop comes to anything…

Nightshades and quinoa

Um...it tastes better than it looks...

Here’s what I made with my market haul today:

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 Tbl minced garlic
  • 1 lb ground beef (optional)
  • 3 Japanese eggplant – large cubes
  • 1c breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 summer squash – large cubes
  • 6 tomatoes – large cubes
  • Olive oil, salt, and Italian spices

Sautee the onion, garlic, and beef until brown; set aside. Beat eggs with a fork in a large bowl.  Add the eggplant and coat with egg.  Add breadcrumbs, Italian seasoning, and salt and toss to coat.  Brown this mixture. (If you get any eggy rafts of breadcrumbs, fish them out as a snack for the cook.)  Set eggplant aside.  Brown squash, then add tomatoes.  Simmer until the tomatoes break down and start to thicken.  At this point, you have two choices: cook this until it’s thick, add the beef and eggplant at the end, and serve as-is or as a pasta sauce.  Or, add the beef/onions and eggplant plus 2/3 c of rinsed quinoa and let the tomato juice cook into the quinoa.

Moving toward local eating: Summary

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

Which of these is the most important? For me, awareness, followed closely by enough experience to know what I can and can’t do as far as a local diet goes.  Figuring out what is and is not essential.  For me…I love me some avocados, and they will be the last thing I stop buying from afar.  For my sweetie, it’s probably raisins.  Carrots are also critical, but I can’t grow them worth a darn and they are actually very difficult to find locally – and when you do find them, they are tiny and outrageously expensive.  I’m not even very good at storing them yet, but I need to find a way to do so, because we eat carrots every single day and I’ve not yet found something to replace them in all their uses.

It’s also been important for me to learn when to back off.  Buying instead of growing my tomatoes, especially for pizza sauce, is a great option.  Salsa is still expensive enough that I’ll make my own, but good tomatoes are so readily available, I’m happy to buy them rather than to grow and process my own.  Sandwich bread is another one of those things.  I’ve made a hundred loaves of bread in the last few years, and I don’t think we’ve ever finished one. Ever.  They always get moldy or stale because something gets in the way of eating it.  And at this point, I don’t really care.  I buy Aunt Millie’s, which is baked in Jackson, probably from high plains wheat, but I’m not even sure about that.  I can make an OK loaf of sandwich bread, but the main sandwich-eater really just likes his pre-sliced loaf.  Which is fine by me; one less thing I have to make at home.  I also don’t worry too much about rice being our main grain at home at this point.  We’re eating a lot more potatoes now that I’m growing them, but rice is another thing I’m content to buy in big bags shipped across the country as long as I may.

If I have any advice through all this, it’s simply to start somewhere, push yourself a little bit, and don’t kill yourself doing it.  Sourcing at least part of your food locally is vitally important, to keep your neighbors employed and to ensure there’s some food supply you can get your hands on without the need for a bazillion gallons of oil and three international treaties.  “Some” is better than “none,” and “a lot” is better than “some.” Just keep in mind that you have to sustain your sustainability, and keep enjoying a nip of chocolate if that’s what keeps you happy. 🙂

Moving toward local eating: Deprivation and delight

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

Let’s face it.  You can only combine rice, beans, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets, kale, onions, and beef or pork so many ways.  The vegetables, especially, really get to me, because there are only so many things that store well through a Michigan winter.  I’m not about to expand my repertoire to include canned green beans. *blech*

Dealing with repetition take a lot of adjustment.  We are accustomed to change – new restaurants, new ingredients, 40,000 different items at the grocery store.  So stripping that back is a mental challenge, and I do worry a little about nutrition.  Especially when I’m sick and my appetite’s off anyway.  My first reaction to deprivation was just to buy one of the other 39,970 items at the grocery store, which works quite nicely (helloooooo chocolate coconut-milk ice cream!).

But I also realized the benefit of spices and of canning items I had previously thought of as “frivolous” – a variety of fruits, jams, chutneys, pickles, and such.  A variety of condiments can really make a difference.  What’s the difference between pea soup  and mung daal? Turmeric and garam masala.   And nothing – nothing – feels like summer love in a jar more than home-canned peaches.  More of a treat than ice cream, they are to me.

So now I feel like I’m at the point – three or four years after I started my serious “locavore” pus – where I’m feeling pretty comfortable sourcing the bulk of our staple foods from very close by.  And now the “treats,” like peaches and such, don’t seem optional – they seem just as necessary as the staple goods.

See, I don’t believe that eating locally is all about restriction and deprivation.  It’s not just about making sure we can survive when the rising price of oil literally takes the food off the shelves.  It’s about thriving, right here, right now.  Food is a major delight for me, and I don’t want to get to the point where I perceive all the “fun” food as coming from far away, and possibly cut by forces outside of my control.  So this year, I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to regionally-sourced treats.

What’s your favorite local treat food?

Moving toward local eating: Tropical blindness

Choosing vegetablesPart of the “Moving toward local eating” series

At some point, I got so used to buying things that are produced nearby, I forgot that things like bananas and avocados even exist.  Ok, maybe I never forgot about avocados, but there are lots of things that I quit buying because they are shipped from too far away and then found I didn’t miss them too much.

Mostly, I count this as a mercy.  Though I would occasionally find myself in the middle of February feeling run-down and seriously bored with my food.  I’d be standing in the middle of piles of fruit and greens and other goodies thinking “there’s nothing here to eat” because I just glossed over anything that didn’t have  “local” tag on it.  When I got to that point, I sort of had to shake myself awake and remember not to sacrifice my health for the sake of food miles.

And then when I was thinking clearly again, I’d start plotting how to get what I need locally.  Which is tomorrow’s installment…

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